No team starts out the season hoping to play in the NIT, but it can tell you a lot about a team to see how they handle ending up in the secondary March basketball tournament. In their run that tonight saw them advance to the NIT final Xavier has displayed the tenacity, verve, and talent that had people dreaming about the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament early in the season.
Xavier opened their third trip to Madison Square Garden by looking a lot more like the team that took down Ohio State and Connecticut than the one that stumbled to defeat here against Butler just under 3 weeks ago. With Nate Johnson (10/4/5), Jack Nunge (18/8/3), and Colby Jones (16/8/4) leading the way early, Xavier used a 12-0 run to open up a double digit lead inside the first 7 minutes of play. A veteran St. Bonaventure team, playing in front of a crowd largely comprised of their fellow students and fans was always going to punch back and did so in due course, rattling off 7 of their own.
Sean Miller's teams were always good for a fightback after an opponent run, and tonight Xavier's response to the Bonnies 7-0 spurt would surely have impressed the future leader, who was in attendance. Spurred by Dwon Odom (4/0/2) and the again dynamic Adam Kunkel (18/4/3) alongside Nunge and Jones, Xavier responded with 14 straight to build a 19 point cushion and set out a mountain for the Bonnies to climb.
St. Bonaventure came out in the second half on fire and quickly ate into the Xavier lead. Unfortunately for them, for every run they put on or bucket they scored, Xavier had a response. After a somewhat quiet first half, Zach Freemantle (18/6/1) had his full array of post moves and jumpers working for him against St. Bonaventure's tenacious shot blocker Osun Osunniyi. The first two times the Bonnies got the deficit inside single digits, Jack Nunge responded with baskets. Next it was a three and a tough step back from Kunkel that kept them at bay. Colby Jones would hit his only three of the night at a vital moment to push the lead back to 13 with 9 minutes left. Xavier's ability to use imbalanced lineups to create matchup problems for the Bonnies defense was vital in keeping them at arms length as the game neared its final stretch.
St. Bonaventure's had one last punch to throw, and it looked like they were finally going to reel Xavier in when they cut the lead to 5 with 5:38 left. After a Nunge bucket and a split at the line for Karen Holmes, Kunkel hit his third three of the night to extend the lead back to 9. The next three shots Xavier took were all Freemantle makes, and the Bonnies never got the game back within 5 until there were 6 seconds left on the clock.
This second half may not have been pretty, and Xavier's season may not have turned out the way we or they hoped it would, but this group has stuck together, overcome the loss of their coach to departure and their leader to injury, and will play for a championship on Thursday. It may not be what we were envisioning back in November, but there is a lot of reason to optimistic and proud about the effort this team has put in these last two weeks.