“First off, I would like to start off by saying it’s a great opportunity our guys have to play for a championship.” Those were the first words from Jonas Hayes in his first press conference as Xavier’s interim head coach on March 18th. Tonight, that rallying cry became a reality as Hayes led a Xavier team that refused to quit on this season into Madison Square Garden to try to secure that championship. Xavier had put the clamps on Florida to pull away, survived a Scotty Pippen Jr buzzer beater against Vandy, and seen off a late charge from St. Bonaventure to get here. Standing in their way tonight was a Texas A&M team who had won 11 of 12, felt rightly aggrieved to not be in the NCAA Tournament, and had obliterated their competition in the NIT, winning all 4 games by double digits.
Xavier got out of the gates well and when Colby Jones (21/4/3) hit his first of three triples tonight to give Xavier an early 15-6 lead, it looked like the Muskies had their path to victory. However, A&M showed the mettle that had served them so well in this run and battled Xavier’s offense to a halt, outscoring them 34-17 the rest of the half to lead by 8 at half time. Xavier was unable to get all cylinders clicking on offense and relied heavily on Jack Nunge (15/11/4) and Dwon Odom (18/3/2) alongside Jones to keep them in touching distance.
With a title to play for in the second half, Xavier finally started to get some more people clicking on offense. First it was Nate Johnson (7/3/2) who hit a three early on to help cut into the deficit. Soon after that Zach Freemantle (6/8/3) hit a three of his own, followed by one from Jones and a wonderful finish from Odom to give Xavier the lead back at the 11:28 mark. For the next 6 minutes, neither team would build a lead larger than 2 points as Xavier got a big bucket from Adam Kunkel (4/1/2), who was in and out of foul trouble in the second half. With 5 minutes left and the game tied at 63, Nate Johnson stepped forward and put his stamp on his final colligate game. He started with some dogged defense on Tyrece Radford, who he helped hassle into a 6-17 performance from the floor, running step for step with him down the lane before timing his block attempt perfectly to secure the jump ball and get possession back for Xavier. He then received a kickout from Adam Kunkel and, as he has 111 times over the last two years at Xavier, rose and buried a three. His capper was to intercept a Hassan Diarra drive with a well timed deflection to create a turnover that Dwon Odom turned into 2 points and Xavier’s largest lead of the second half heading into the final 4 minute war of the season.
From that point on, A&M’s Quentin Jackson, also playing in his final collegiate game, did all he could to make this his story. In the last 4 minutes, he went 1-1 from the floor and 5-6 from the line as he, nearly single handedly, tried to wring one last victory out of his college basketball career. It came down to Xavier having one last shot to secure a final win and finish the topsy-turvy, borderline unbelievable story of Team 100 in style. Kunkel drove hard right, but his shot was altered and clanged off the rim. Freemantle, waiting weakside for just such a bounce, skied try to tip it in, but couldn’t convert while still managing to force the Aggies to knock the ball out of bounds to keep the possession and the game alive. Colby Jones took the ball out under the basket and surveyed his options. What seemed like an eternity ticked by with Nate Johnson wildly gesturing for the ball in the far corner before Colby skipped a surgical bounce pass to the waiting left hand of Jack Nunge on the left block. On a team whose story has now been shaped by adversity, perhaps none know it better than Nunge, who has dealt with injuries, setbacks, and, most tragically, the unexpected loss of his father. Tonight he was a colossus in blue, metronomically hauling down rebounds and finessing in buckets when the team needed it most. He spun back towards the lane and fired up a right handed hook shot straight off the glass and through the strings for the final basket of Xavier’s season and the game. A&M’s last hope would rattle out and the Musketeers would celebrate.
There will be much more to say about this team in the coming days. Stories, reflections, and thoughts on Team 100 and what Team 101 might look like as a result. For now though, it is hard to sum things up better than Coach Hayes, who has inspired this fanbase and gotten full buy in from these players, did immediately after the game. “That's what Xavier Basketball is.”