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How Xavier went on a 29-2 run and saved the season

Dead and buried at the half, Xavier flipped the Swagger Switch and ran Creighton off of their own floor.

NCAA Basketball: Xavier at Creighton
Good to see this guy smiling again.
Dylan Widger-USA TODAY Sports

Honestly, how did you feel at halftime? One of our writers on here sent a message to the group text that said, “I’m going to take a nap and skip our spirited comeback that comes up short.” That pretty much summed up where I was, though I was not the author of the message. I knew the team wouldn’t quit, I just wasn’t convinced all that effort and commitment would matter.

I don’t blame anyone who was in the same place. Xavier was down 36-19. They had shot 1-7 from behind the arc and 5-14 on layups (according to my rough count of ESPN’s unedited play-by-play data). As gruesome as literally any stat you could dredge up was to look at, the game itself was somehow worse to watch. The first half was summed up by the final play it contained. Paul Scruggs pressured the ball high and knocked it loose. He was first to it, saving it towards Colby Jones and Ryan Hawkins. Hawkins came up with it and threw it on to Ryan Kalkbrenner for an uncontested dunk.

Except it wasn’t. Scruggs, having never given up on the play, flew out of nowhere and blocked Kalkbrenner from behind despite being 8 inches shorter than him. The ball rattled around and fell back to Kalkbrenner, who duly dunked it home. All the effort and hustle from Xavier had left them further adrift than when they began.

Then Xavier put together maybe the most remarkable 11 minutes of basketball I’ve seen in my life.

It started as well as it possibly could: Xavier forced a miss from Ryan Kalkbrenner and Colby Jones grabbed the board. On the other end, Jack Nunge cashed out a three. The next possession went about the same, with Creighton going one-and-done on one end and Xavier’s center drilling his second three on the other.

Nunge failed to make it three-for-three on the next trip down - though who could blame him for trying - but Xavier kept getting stops and Paul Sruggs cashed out from deep on Xavier’s fourth possession. In just 2:30, X had cut the 17 point deficit to just 8.

After Zach Freemantle knocked home a bunny to make it 11-0, Creighton called timeout, triggering the media break. In the span of under 5 minutes, the Muskies had taken the game from a laugher to firmly into “we have a game” territory. Greg McDermott was in the huddle, desperately trying to put fires out.

It didn’t work. Paul Scruggs had already grabbed the game by the neck and was refusing to let go. He hit a driving layup after Xavier forced another empty one-shot possession, then tipped back his own miss to cut the lead to just two. The next time down, he fed Jack Nunge for a layup and just like that it was tied.

At this point in time, the teams had been playing basketball less than seven second-half minutes. Creighton was shooting 0-6/0-4/0-0 and had turned the ball over 4 times. They had gathered zero offensive rebounds from their 6 misses. On the other end, X had shot a cool 7-12/3-5/0-0, turned the ball over 0 times, and grabbed 2 offensive rebounds. Paul Scruggs alone had 7 points and 2 assists; only Jack Nunge’s two threes hadn’t been scored or assisted by him.

Having battled all the way back to a draw, Xavier kept going. Colby Jones got a steal and threw it ahead to Zach Freemantle for a dunk that capped a 19-0 run and put Xavier in the lead. Ryan Kalkbrenner responded with a pair of free throws - Creighton’s first points of a half that was at that point 7:30 old - on a foul call that had Jack Nunge visibly expressing frustration.

His frustration was short-lived. After the teams exchanged empty possessions, Nunge drilled a three from pick-and-pop action with Paul Scruggs. Then Scruggs hit a layup, then he and Nunge combined for another trip to Ryan Kalkbrenner’s personal hell. Once again marooned and indecisive in pick-and-pop action, he could only recover late as Jack Nunge banged home yet another three ball.

Eleven minutes into the half, Zach Freemantle scored from the mid-range to put Xavier up 10. The basket capped a 29-2 run in which the Musketeers recovered and then flipped a double-digit deficit, on the road, against a Big East opponent. In that time, Xavier forced 7 turnovers and held Creighton to 0-8/0-5/2-2. In all the hours I’ve spent watching basketball - and it has been a lot of hours - I don’t think I’ve ever seen a team do that to a high-major opponent on their own court.

Amazingly, after Xavier opened up that can on Creighton for 11 consecutive minutes, the teams played even the rest of the way. Having apparently accomplished what they set out to do, Xavier kept Creighton at arm’s length for the rest of the game, cruising to a 10-point win without ever letting the home side back within a possession. There was only one thing left to do.

This was Coach Steele’s “Lads, it’s Tottenham” moment. What would you have done in that locker room if you were the coach? We certainly had opinions in our mentions.

Instead, per Coach Steele and the players, halftime was fairly placid. He wrote two things on the board: “Half time score is the most overrated stat in sports” and “SWAGGER”. Then he told the team to play like they were having fun. No boots in backsides, no hairdryer treatment, no public shaming. Just a reminder of who they were and why they started playing, then running the boys back out there to play ball.

In the end, it was more than enough. Xavier got the win they needed, and now they come home for a couple of games that give them every chance of building some momentum in the league.