On the heels of a 2 game losing streak and with their early season momentum a distant memory, Xavier dug deep tonight to produce a win in a battle that lived up to the Big East’s reputation for physicality and intensity. In grabbing this victory, Xavier has reinvigorated their push towards the first NCAA Tournament berth of the Travis Steele era and answered questions about this team’s ability to put together a complete 40 minutes against a quality opponent.
This game was somewhat different from previous Xavier games right from the start, with UConn matching Xavier in struggling to establish traction on offense. Their bulldozing big man Adama Sanogo (11/6/1) was saddled with a pair of early fouls, limiting his effectiveness in the game’s opening 20 minutes. He was soon joined by Xavier tormenter RJ Cole (22/3/3) as UConn’s offense sputtered through the early going before clicking into gear around the 10 minute mark.
It was at the 8 minute mark when Nate Johnson (12/3/0) hit a jumper and got his first points of the night before driving for an acrobatic finish two possessions later. Johnson’s struggles have been talked to death, but he came up big when Xavier needed a spark tonight, dropping a three to knot the game at 22 before Jack Nunge (22/9/1) capped a scramble with a triple of his own to grab Xavier their first lead of the night nearly 15 minutes into the contest. Colby Jones (8/5/6) had Xavier’s next 6 to have the game tied at 31 before Johnson raced up the floor and drilled a three from straight on as the clock expired to send Xavier into the locker room leading against a real college basketball team (Butler doesn’t count) for the first time since December 21. All told, Johnson and Jones, two of Xavier’s most important pieces, combined for 18 points in the first half. The last time they had combined for 18 in a game was January 15 against Crieghton. In a game where Xavier could not afford the issues that had been costing them, a couple of players who had struggled in recent weeks came out and staked them to a halftime lead.
Given that they have been playing disastrously in the first half of games and have not been getting blown out, it would stand to reason that Xavier is a second half team. Taking the baton from Johnson and Jones, Paul Scruggs (9/3/2) and Zach Freemantle (12/9/1) sought to improve upon a first half in which neither of them had scored and Scruggs had gotten himself into minor foul trouble. As if flipping a switch, they came out and scored Xavier’s first 13 points of the half, their two man 13-6 run culminating in an and-1 for Freemantle that gave Xavier the first double digit lead of the night. With their two preseason all-conference picks seemingly primed to take the game over, Xavier’s ambitions were curtailed by a three point barrage from Cole and Tyrese Martin (18/4/1), who spurred UConn back into the game with a 9-2 spurt of their own, setting up 11 minutes for Xavier to prove their mettle against another team set to play meaningful games toward the end of March.
Over the final 11 minutes of the game, Xavier’s execution was not perfect. They turned the ball over 4 times, shot 10-16 (62.5%) from the line, and gave up 5 offensive rebounds. However, the toughness and togetherness that this team has displayed in trying to battle back into game also was evident as they tried to hold onto this one. Heads didn’t drop. Tempers didn’t flair, as they did for UConn who were assessed a pair of costly technical fouls. The same things that have helped this team battle back so many times were on display as they held off a very good team to secure a win. Jack Nunge was again excellent, scoring 11 points in the last 11 minutes and hitting 5 of his 6 free throw attempts in the final 1:12. Dwon Odom was a blur with the ball in his hands, slicing through UConn’s zone to score and set up teammates. Paul Scruggs blocked three shots, Nate Johnson hounded Cole until a nasty spill saw him limp off, Colby Jones was once again present to contest every loose ball, and Zach Freemantle converted his frustration into hustle plays. Xavier once again outplayed their opponent in the second half. Tonight, they did it without spotting them a cushion.