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Xavier cedes the first half again; wins anyway

Xavier played both their worst and best halves of the season today.

NCAA Basketball: Xavier at Creighton
Dylan Widger-USA TODAY Sports

Where do we start with this one? In a game Xavier didn’t absolutely need to win, but certainly would circle as a chance to get a quality win after falling to Providence, the Musketeers came out and played what was easily identifiable as the worst 20 minutes of their season thus far (and hopefully overall). Xavier shot a putrid 8-35 from the floor (1-7 from three), missed 10 layups, turned 9 offensive rebounds into just 7 points, and ceded runs of 11-2, 8-0, and 11-3 to head into the break down by 17 points, having scored just 19 themselves. The knives were out on social media and the team’s flaws weren’t just on display, but seemingly amplified by the roaring pink clad crowds.

If the first half was Xavier’s worst 20 minutes of the season, the next 20 minutes may just represent the best stretch this team has played this season. With Ryan Kalkbrenner having dominated proceedings for the first 20 minutes by completely erasing Xavier’s offense in the lane, Jack Nunge (16/8/0), scoreless in the first half, set about trying to lure the 7-footer away from his area of greatest impact by hitting threes on Xavier’s first two possessions. As Nunge sparked the offense, Xavier’s swarming defense completely nullified Creighton. Xavier racked up 10 straight stops to begin the second half and scored 8 times in their first 10 trips to flip the game on its ear and grab a lead by virtue of a 19-0 run.

The first 8 minutes of the half had been a flurry from Xavier’s starters, briefly broken by a pair of Kalkbrenner free throws. As Xavier took control of the game, Paul Scruggs (18/5/8) was instrumental, burying a three, driving for a score, tipping in his own miss, and assisiting a pair of baskets in the stretch. With the team staring down the barrel of a three game losing streak, their 5th year senior was aces. So too was Zach Freemantle (16/8/1), who had been a frustrating 3-10 in the first half. The three was still not falling for him but, with Kalbrenner nullified by Nunge, Freemantle had free reign in the low post for Xavier and gave Creighton no breaks when they threw Ryan Hawkins on him in the paint.

After Xavier had the game tied at 38, basically the only member of the starting 5 not to find his stride yet was Nate Johnson (15/3/0), who had continued his shooting slump with a 1-4 first half. After Nunge, Scruggs, and Freemantle staked Xavier to a 10 point lead with a 10-0 run to respond to Creighton’s first two points of the half, Johnson protected it. Creighton got back within 7 on a Trey Alexander and-1. Johnson for three. Ryan Nembhard drove and cut the lead back to 7. Johnson for three. Alex O’Connell hit a pair of free throws to get the Bluejays back within 6. Johnson for three. Finally, with Xavier up 6 inside the final media timeout, Zach Freemantle made a free throw, missed the second and, after a trademark Colby Jones hustle rebound, Johnson finished Creighton off once and for all with his 4th three of the half. Creighton would never again be back within 7 as Xavier took care of the ball and made their free throws to seal a 74-64 win in front of a stunned CHI Health Center crowd.

Much can be said about the first half which was not here. Xavier missed a lot of shots, did not do a good job of converting second chances into points, and looked lost on defense. However, only the willfully pessimistic would have a bigger take away from this game than that this is a team that fights hard for one another. There were issues with the performance as there always are. Probably more. But Xavier came out and reminded us all in the second half how good this team can be and how hard they work to correct their shortcomings. While this is not a flawless team, today’s display did show that this is a tough team and a hard working team, and that they give their best when faced with adversity.