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Xavier won’t die and this season rolls on

Team 100 refuses to go quietly into that good night.

NCAA Basketball: Cleveland State at Xavier
This dude is a wizard
Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

This season could have died a lot of times. Xavier could have fully no showed the Cleveland State game. Xavier could have surrendered after Paul Scruggs suffered the torn ACL that ended his career as a Musketeer. Xavier could have rolled over down nine with 6:05 to play tonight. Instead, Xavier has, belatedly, found something. Team 100 is fighting on, and fighting on in a pretty special way.The question with the NIT is always how much the team will care. This team, now, cares very much.

Perhaps no one embodies that fight more than Adam Kunkel (14/4/4). Finally playing the minutes he has probably merited all season, Kunkel gives Xavier the change of pace their half court offense has been missing. When Xavier started (very) slowly, it was Kunkel who attacked to score seven of nine and level the scores. When Xavier went down nine late in the game, Kunkel assisted on three straight made buckets and then scored five straight of his own to give Xavier the lead with under a minute to play. Whatever deference had been in his game is gone now. Adam Kunkel is running this team.

That is, of course, a far crying from going it alone. A plugged in Zach Freemantle (16/6/0) is a different beast than what X got most of the season. Tonight, Freemantle was scrappy, tenacious on the glass, and at least trying on defense. Jack Nunge (10/4/1) spent most of his game in what appeared to be a gang war underneath the bucket and punished Vandy on two occasions when they didn’t follow him outside. His heady play also won Xavier a crucial jump ball when Liam Robbins didn’t realize Nunge had read his move and could only feebly pull on the ball when Jack grabbed it.

Colby Jones (15/8/4) was consistently aggressive to the rim all night long. Whenever Xavier played with just one big, Jones drove. When Xavier went with two bigs, Jones dominated the weak side glass. Coach Jonas Hayes (please stay, Jonas) rotated lineups and matchups and kept the pressure on Jerry Stackhouse to adjust. Whenever he did, Coach Hayes used Colby Jones as the primary method of changing the angle of attack. Colby didn’t always have the ball in his hands, but his presence forced the defense to adjust and left space for Nate Johnson (12/0/1) and Adam Kunkel to operate.

It was perhaps telling that Xavier’s whole team didn’t get rolling but they still won the game. In the last 6:05 they forced Vanderbilt into 2-9 shooting and two turnovers. Dwon Odom (4/4/4) had almost no box score impact but was relentless on defense. Jerome Hunter (1/3/0) and Dieonte Miles (0/1/0), two of Xavier’s most stalwart defenders at the start of the year, both chipped in quality minutes in a defensive effort that was occasionally ropy but never lacking in energy.

And that, really, was the story of the game. In front of a home crowd that was rocking and absolutely excellent all game, Xavier came out and showed what this program is all about. Missing their senior leader, playing in a tournament relegated to 9pm Tuesday tip offs, the Musketeers came out and fought their way back to Madison Square Garden. This season may yet end with a loss, but these Musketeers are refusing to let it end without a fight.