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Xavier battles Marquette for 37 minutes to get the ball to their closer

The Golden Eagles often took the fight to Xavier at Cintas. In the end, it was who we knew it was going to be.

NCAA Basketball: Marquette at Xavier
You’ve earned it, Souley.
Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

With 3:13 left on the clock and the game tied at 68, Adam Kunkel jumped on the left wing and threw a long diagonal pass to Souley Boum. To that point, Souley was not having his best game in Xavier colors. He had just 7 points on 3-13/1-7/0-0 shooting, having been outshone by his opposite number, Marquette point guard Tyler Kolek.

Kolek was effervescent in the first half, during which it was not clear that the Xavier players had been told that Kolek is left-handed. He had 20 points on 9-11/2-3/0-0 shooting and dished out 4 assists to just 1 turnover. He single-handedly triggered every Marquette run and shut down every one of Xavier’s.

Less than 4 minutes into the game, he already drilled a three to make the score 13-4, marking Marquette’s largest lead of the game. Xavier scrambled back in through their big men, with Zach Freemantle hitting a couple of buckets and BE Sixth Man of the Year favorite (in my heart) Jerome Hunter providing 5 points and the incandescent energy for which he has become known. When Jack Nunge grabbed a Colby Jones miss and stuck it back to make the Xavier lead 20-16, it looked like the home team was ascendent.

First Half Kolek wasn’t having any of that. He set up Kam Jones and Oso Ighodaro for buckets and then hit another three of his own. Xavier came up empty on a pair of possessions and suddenly Marquette had seized back the momentum and taken a 27-24 lead of their own. Jack Nunge scored and-one and Colby Jones got a basket of his own. Kolek answered each bucket with one of his own, then set up David Joplin for a three.

Zach Freemantle scored. Tyler Kolek answered, again, then set up Olivier-Maxence Prosper for a basket. Having led 20-16, Xavier trailed 38-31. Adam Kunkel hit a three that felt huge, but Tyler Kolek answered it with yet another basket. Nunge 2 FT, Kolek jumper. Colby Jones layup, Kolek layup. It was persistent and irrepressible and unwelcome, the way an uncomfortable itch in a sensitive region might hound a best man while he tried to maintain his composure during a wedding service.

Thankfully, halftime was coming. Surely Sean Miller would roll out some changes to neutralize Kolek and swing the momentum of the game. Instead, he backed into the post and scored on Marquette’s first possession of the half. To that point, 20:35 into the game, he had 22 points on 10-12 shooting. From there on out, he would score just 3 points on 1-6 shooting and dish out 3 assists to 2 turnovers. After scoring 22 of Marquette’s first 50, he effectively disappeared.

As if to tease whose second half it would be, Souley Boum scored the next 5 points to put Xavier up 51-50. That was during a string of four consecutive scoring possessions for Xavier that Marquette answered with two of their own, pushing the score to 56-54 Xavier with 16:39 to play in the game.

Something changed there. Maybe the defenses locked down. Maybe the absolute sprint at which the game had been played to that point began to tell on the players. Maybe someone snuck onto the court during a media timeout and hung the little rims. Whatever it was, buckets quit falling. In 19 possessions for each team over the next 13:28, Xavier scored 12 points and Marquette was only able to answer with 14. In a game in which neither team could get enough stops to make any separation, suddenly stops were there in surplus.

That brings us back to where we started, with Adam Kunkel dropping back to the floor and his pass dropping to Souley Boum. Xavier’s talismanic leader caught, rose, and fired from behind the arc. His shot rolled home, igniting bedlam in Cintas. After Xavier got a stop, Jack Nunge drew a foul and split a pair of free throws.

Like a drowning man thrashing above the surface for the final time before succumbing entirely, Tyler Kolek made his last statistical contribution to the game, an assist to David Joplin in the corner for about the longest two possible.

Colby missed. Ighodaro scored. Tie game with a minute left. Where would the ball go for Xavier?

Where else but Souley Boum? Getting a switch to iso on Ighodaro, he dribbled him down and then - spitting in the eye of analytics - rose for a 17-foot jump shot. For a guy who had struggled for 37 minutes, he shot it with a ton of confidence. Watching with a ton of confidence, the Xavier faithful exulted as Boum found twine again.

There was more confidence where that came from. Once again tasked with putting the game away from the line, Boum once again found time to demonstrate the kind of relaxed swagger usually reserved for after the game.

Marquette fought hard and was borderline dominant at times in the first twenty minutes. As Souley Boum continues to demonstrate, legends are made in the second half. With the game on the line in winning time, he tilted the battle of the point guards, the contest at hand, and the entire landscape of the Big East to Xavier’s favor.