Wednesday nights up here in the neverending dark of February in NE Ohio mean most of the family involved in a local kids program. It’s good. My kids learn to help out, my wife gets to do something she enjoys, I get to sneak away for Starbucks. I mute notifications from the boys at Banners, turn off Twitter, and watch the game when I get home.
With about five minutes left in the game I glanced at my phone and saw the ESPN headline in the notifications “OT buzzer-beater goes...” GOES WHAT!?! Goes begging, apparently. What an incredible game this was. Xavier, commensurate swooners last season, faced another ranked team in their first game without Zach Freemantle and somehow found a way to get the win. It wasn’t always beautiful, but the final result definitely was.
Discussion of this game starts and ends with Jerome Hunter
Beforehand, all the talk was how Xavier would stop Ed Croswell and Bryce Hopkins without Zach Freemantle. Hopkins, especially, has garnered a lot of media attention all year. Jerome Hunter (9/8/1) was the answer to at least half of that question. Hunter chased Hopkins relentlessly and harried him into a 3-14 shooting night. Hopkins was great on the defensive glass, but managed one offensive rebound because he ran into a wolf in the form of Jerome Hunter every time he ventured near the rim. Hunter was absolutely ferocious defensively all night long. Big, long, and quick, he looked impossible to beat at times.
Offensively he seemed to relish the challenge. He took Hopkins into the paint and attacked him with relish. The longer the game went, the more frustrated Hopkins looked that this unheralded bench guy was having the temerity to just keep coming after him. And come after him Hunter did. He was 3-6 inside the arc and racked up an unbelievable seven offensive rebounds. Hopkins and Croswell are big and strong and Jerome Hunter ran them and jumped them ragged. Could he be a bit better at free throws? Sure, but then we’d have missed the sight of him throwing away the training staff to run back on to the floor for the last play. What a monster effort.
Everyone came to play
Sean Miller said he would give everyone a game ball tonight. Coach Miller also wasn’t going to give out extra minutes. Miller shrinks his rotation as the season goes, and tonight didn’t change that. Despite playing five extra minutes and being down a guy who plays 28.5 per contest, Miller doled out a sparking nine minutes to guys not usually in the circle of trust. Cesare Edwards played six minutes, Kyky Tandy played three. They combined for 0/2/0 and neither did anything to suggest they get more next game.
By my word did everyone else come to play. Jack Nunge (23/14/3) started like a ball of fire, receded a bit, but then fought his way to 39 minutes and made big plays down the stretch. Colby Jones (20/3/2) had a stretch in the second half where, in his own quiet way, he took the game over and gave Xavier a reasonably quick seven. He also defended like a demon when Jerome Hunter had to stagger to the bench.
Souley Boum (20/3/9) will likely be frustrated by his shooting night, and missed a FT for some reason, but he played 41 minutes and turned the ball over just once to go with his nine assists. He also had five of Xavier’s nine in OT. When winning time came, he was there. Xavier’s bench tonight consisted of Desmond Claude (7/5/2). All the freshman did was play a career high in minutes without turning the ball over, drill two nerveless free throws when Ed Cooley picked him after Hunter cramped up, and played the defense for which his is becoming known.
Finally, how about Adam Kunkel (6/1/5)? With the team down a man he must have been tempted to chase his shot, but he let the game come to him and drilled a HUGE three with 54 seconds left. Providence ran him off countless screens as he (mostly futilely, it must be said) chased Noah Locke, but he wouldn’t quit. He also only turned the ball over once and threw in a block for good measure.
Even the refs were pretty good
If the last couple games have been frustrating, this one was much better. The refs didn’t spend half an hour reviewing the clock to add tenths of a second, which is both rare and nice. They missed a goaltend when Colby Jones slapped the ball off the rim, and they missed Bryce Hopkins pushing Jerome Hunter over. (The only way to beat Hunter today was to cheat.) Other than that, they sort of just called the game and blended into the background. Can we have these guys every time?
Five turnovers in 45 minutes, and huge win with your potential MVP on the bench, and knocking off one of the co-leaders of the Big East is a pretty nice night of work. Why Ed Cooley ran a play to get Jarred Bynum, 2-6 behind the arc, open when he had a 6-7 from deep Noah Locke out there is beyond me, but Xavier Nation will take it. I tweeted this before the game:
Last year Xavier entered February riding high and on course for a four seed. When adversity hit, though, they crumbled. This season they are in much the place as February starts. We'll find out in about an hour if things will be different and this team is tough enough to finish.— Banners on the Parkway (@BannersParkway) February 1, 2023
For tonight, at least, the answer was an emphatic yes.