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Xavier holds off Cleveland State in a scrappy NIT battle

Picture the NIT. Yep.

NCAA Basketball: Cleveland State at Xavier
This frickin kid was electric last night.
Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

One of the pervasive questions surrounding this game was whether or not Xavier - a team that distinctly did not set out to participate in this tournament - could match the energy and effort that Cleveland State would bring to the game. It wasn’t necessarily implied by anyone in charge, but it was heavily inferred by fans of the program that Travis Steele’s employment status could hinge on the answer.

In the early going, it looked a lot like Coach Steele might need to update the ol’ resume. Just 95 seconds into the game, Xavier was 0-1 from the floor and Paul Scruggs (12/4/4) already had three turnovers. Nearly 7 minutes into the game, the 247th ranked defense in the nation had held Xavier to 2 points and established a six-point lead. The energy in the building had shifted from vaguely disinterested to overtly discontent.

Then Coach Steele lit the fuse on the human energy grenade that is Adam Kunkel (14/3/3) and rolled him into the action. He assisted Jack Nunge (12/4/1) on the team’s second bucket of the game. He picked the pocket of the eminently loathsome Tre Gomillion and set Paul Scruggs up for a three (that didn’t end up going in). He and Dwon Odom gave Xavier valuable minutes off the bench to help steady the ship against a swarming Cleveland State defense.

That defense was the story of the first half and much of the game. Cleveland State ran traps in the full and half court, doubled off of ball screen action, and generally hacked and slapped like they were convinced that the officials wouldn’t call them all. They were correct, as an officiating crew led by Tony Chiazza lost control of the game early and never convincingly recovered it.

Somehow, despite being the slightest of Xavier’s guards, Adam Kunkel looked in his element in a rolling street fight. He had 3 of his assists before the break. He came up with 2 steals in the final 30 seconds of the first half, and ended the period by cashing out a three right in front of the CSU bench and staring down a group of semi-confused walkons who were clearly not planning on changing out of their warmups until the bus ride home. Behind Kunk’s manic energy - and an adjustment from Travis Steele to only run one big at a time - Xavier took a lead into the locker room.

Perplexingly, Steele started the second half with the starters - no Kunk, both bigs. Not perplexingly at all, this led to an immediate 7-0 Cleveland State run that sucked whatever good feelings had accumulated on accident right out of the Cintas Center. Zach Freemantle (13/11/0, 4 blocks) hit a three to stop the bleeding, but Xavier’s defense faltered and the Vikings pulled back out to a 43-36 lead with 15 minutes to play.

X closed the gap with consecutive threes from Nate Johnson (5/0/2, 1-7 from three) and Adam Kunkel, then an absurd double clutch layup from Kunk and a steal and score from Paul Scruggs finally got Xavier over the hump with 10 minutes left on the clock. To the team’s credit, they grew into the game and came up with the energy needed to fight through the chaos Cleveland State threw at them. With Scruggs turning the ball over just one more time after his disastrous first 2 minutes and Adam Kunkel flying to every corner of the floor, the Muskies finally decided that they were going to go ahead and rise to the admittedly uninspiring occasion.

For the last 9:07, Steele made zero substitutions. He rode with Paul Scruggs, Adam Kunkel, Nate Johnson, Colby Jones, and Zach Freemantle. Post game, he said that Cleveland State’s manic defensive style led him to “screw the plays” and go four out, fill the floor with decision makers and ball handlers, and drag CSU out of position. Even when it wasn’t immediately effective, it opened up the paint for offensive rebounds; Xavier’s decisive final buckets in the last two minutes both came off of second chances.

The game staggered to a scrappy end as Cleveland State refused to go quietly but didn’t have the ability to quite make it stick. With Xavier up 5 and a minute to play, Adam Kunkel and D’Moi Hodge got tangled up in a bizarre exchange that was emblematic of the whole game. Both leaped for an offensive board that got tapped out behind the arc. Off of the collision, Kunkel ended up on the ground and Hodge ended up with the ball. Hodge’s ensuing three-point attempt was off, but as he landed Adam Kunkel either instinctively flailed at the feet of a guy about to land on him or maliciously swept the legs out from under someone who had just knocked him down.

Which it was depends on your perspective and likely your opinion of Kunkel as a person and player. Regardless, it was unquestionably not a basketball play and even more clearly a flagrant foul than that time Jack Nunge bumped into Nate Watson at half court. Somehow, the officials went to the monitor and saw only a shooting foul. Hodge made all three free throws after he and Kunkel exchanged what appeared to be gracious words during the monitor review.

In the end, X did almost the dictionary definition of just enough to win. It was not a good performance, but it was enough to survive and advance. The Muskies will move on to play the winner of Florida and Iona on Sunday with a chance to give Travis Steele his first 20-win season at Xavier.