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Xavier and UConn battle to the wire in a Big East instant classic

Everyone got their money’s worth at Cintas today.

NCAA Basketball: Connecticut at Xavier Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

There was a moment in the first half in which Xavier was ascendant. With 5:48 left before the break, Jack Nunge made a layup off of a Souley Boum assist to put Xavier up 36-26 on the #2 team in the nation. The Muskies were executing at a rate that appeared unsustainable, but the manner in which they failed to sustain it was precipitous and immediate.

The Muskies embarked on a field goal drought of more than four minutes that allowed UConn to get right back into the game. They missed just two shots in those four minutes, instead electing to turn the ball over three times to cede the initiative to the visitors. Two Xavier misses framed around yet another turnover were answered by a pair of threes from UConn, and the Muskies turned a 10-point lead with less than 6 minutes to play in the half into a 1-point deficit when the horn sounded.

It was briefly more of the same out of the half. Xavier surrendered 6 points in UConn’s first two possessions of the second half, and a Adama Sanogo jumper put the Huskies up 50-43 and had Xavier in real danger in a game they had controlled at one point.

The Muskies fought back through their bigs. Zach Freemantle assisted an Adam Kunkel bucket, then Jerome Hunter scored and converted the free throw. A couple of free throws by Jack Nunge briefly had the game tied at 50.

Nunge was a huge story all game. He was slowed by flu-like symptoms to the point where he was not certain to start, then he only got 12 minutes in the first half. When the teams came out of the locker rooms at the start of the second half, Jack was conspicuous by his absence. When he finally came to the floor, it was to sit on the bench with a towel over his head.

He was down but not out. He scored consecutive baskets to tie the game at 58. He blocked Adama Sanogo at the rim. Any time he left the floor or checked back in, the Cintas crowd blew the roof off in appreciation as the Xavier faithful recognized the effort their big man was giving to gut the team across the line.

Riding the wave of energy from the home crowd, Xavier’s defense started to lock in. Souley forced a tough jumper from Tristen Newton that Adam Kunkel recovered. Colby Jones got a steal and a layup. Adama Sanogo scored, but Zach Freemantle answered with a jumper that was almost long enough to be a three. Frosty forced Sanogo out of the paint again and Jerome Hunter - maybe the poster boy for Xavier’s energy and intensity - made a couple of free throws after drawing a foul.

The teams battled back and forth, with the momentum changing hands several times until the game was tied at 71 heading into winning time.

Sometimes the difference down the stretch is player execution; sometimes there’s a heaping dose of coaching in there. While all about him were keeping their heads, Dan Hurley lost his, drawing the ire of the officials and then a technical foul. In his defense, the call he was questioning was, like so many on the day, extremely questionable. In his not defense, he’s a grown man who needs to learn to control his emotions, and Xavier cashed out four free throws to go from up 2 to up 6 with under 3 minutes left in the game.

From there it was a question of toughness, and Xavier answered the bell. Boum came up short on a three-point attempt, but Colby Jones flew in to grab it and stick it back. UConn came down and got a couple of looks at threes, but Jerome Hunter rose strongest through a sea of opposing arms to rip down a huge board and draw Alex Karaban’s fifth foul. After more free throws, it was the ailing Jack Nunge who owned the glass the next time down, handing off to Souley Boum for a pair of automatic points from the line.

Andre Jackson got a look at a last-gasp three down 9 with 33 seconds to play and it was once again Jerome Hunter - the only wolf in a pack of visiting dogs - fighting off every Huskie to secure the rebound and bounce it off of Joey Calcaterra to keep it in home hands. The next meaningful act of the game would be Xavier players fighting to find a camera to make the signature #ZipEmUp gesture.