Yesterday was a day for the past and the future for Xavier fans. It was a day to look back and reminisce about the first Sean Miller era and look ahead and dream about what may be possible now that his return to Victory Parkway has been confirmed. Today, however, was a return to the present, another chance for Xavier fans to watch Team 100, and another chance for the players and coaches to try to advance toward securing an NIT title.
It might have seemed like business as usual in the early going with Florida’s Colin Castleton scoring 4 points in the paint on the Gators’ first 4 possessions of the game. Jonas Hayes’ charges responded with a 14-2 run spurred by a pair of threes from Nate Johnson (16/1/5) and a couple of finishes in the paint from Zach Freemantle (10/1/7), who was dropped from the starting lineup in favor of Adam Kunkel (5/1/4). Having gone up by as many as 10, Xavier spent the rest of the half fighting off the Gators’ attempts to eat into the lead, but Phlandro Fleming’s finish at the buzzer sent the teams into the break tied at 33 with both interim coaches trying to scheme how to seize control of the game.
Xavier threw the first punch coming out of the locker room by scoring the first 7 points of the half, capped by a trademark Paul Scruggs (2/3/3) baseline fadeaway. Coming out of the first media timeout, Jack Nunge (12/4/8) drained a pair of free throws to push the lead back to double digits and, after a quick 6-0 from the Gators, Freemantle, Dwon Odom (10/3/7), and Jerome Hunter (4/0/1) would restore the a lead of 12 that would never slip to single digits again. Xavier’s swarming defense, characteristic of the team that was ranked 18th in the middle of January, would force Florida into a putrid 8-36 from the floor and 5 turnovers as they managed just 23 second half points.
The incident for which this game might be remembered came with 16:54 left on the clock. Paul Scruggs grabbed a steal, the 177th of his Xavier career, and set off on a fast break. Faced by a pair of Florida defenders, he attempted to avert his path so as to prevent his shot from being blocked, but had his left knee buckle under him as he put his weight on it. Several minutes later, he emerged from the locker room surrounded by family members and was greeted with hugs from his teammates and at least one of the officials that were refereeing the game. The severity of the injury or whether it will affect Scruggs’ availability going forward are not known at this time, but if that was the last act of his Xavier career, it came as he tired to spur the team on in uncertain circumstances. As would be expected of a person of Paul’s caliber, he refused to sit and sulk. Much like Kyky Tandy, Ben Stanley, and Nate Johnson when they faced spells on the sidelines this season, Paul was vocal and active in supporting his teammates and, in a week marked by turbulence and change, reminded us once again what Xavier Basketball looks like.