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Xavier rolls Pitt to move on to the Sweet 16

A composed performance from the Muskies brushes aside the Pitt Panthers to put X back into the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2017.

Syndication: The Enquirer
This dude couldn’t miss (in the first half).
Kareem Elgazzar/The Enquirer / USA TODAY NETWORK

The first three possessions were a harbinger for the entire first half. After Jack Nunge (18/3/3) won the tap, Xavier immediately went to Jerome Hunter (14/5/2) for the first basket of the game. The next time down, Nunge kicked it to Adam Kunkel (15/4/3), who racked out from three. Staked to a 5-0 lead, Souley Boum (14/7/5) attacked the rim and got turned aside by Greg Elliott.

And that was basically the story of the half. Jerome Hunter had an answer for everything Pitt threw at him in the form of Blake Hinson (18/6/1), with the heralded Pitt forward not making inroads into the game until late in the second half. Jack Nunge was irrepressible, putting up 14 on 6-10 shooting before the interval. Despite having 14 feet of Diaz Graham to throw at him, Pitt never figured out how to slow him down.

And Adam Kunkel picked up the slack left by a slow start from Souley Boum. Pitt fought back from their early doldrums, holding a 15-14 lead with 12:30 left on the first half clock. From there, Xavier went on a 34-19 run to end the half with a lead they’d never approach relinquishing. Kunkel assisted 8 of those points and scored another 12, drilling 5 first-half threes and throwing in 3 boards and 3 steals for good measure. He was at his absolute best in the first 20 minutes.

With Pitt locking in on Xavier’s point guard, Boum never forced his own shot, instead allowing his teammates to grow into the space the opponent left. They responded with a comprehensive offensive performance, dishing out 17 assists on 19 made buckets and getting everywhere they wanted to go. With Pitt hedging hard on high ball screens, the bigs were feasting on back cuts and pinpoint passing from the guards was leading to highlight reel dunks.

If you were holding your breath for a big second half run, it never came. All the ingredients were there. Foul trouble? Check; Xavier had Nunge and Boum get their third and Hunter and Jones get their second before the first media timeout. Sean Miller yo-yoed his bench and starters masterfully, eventually getting 36+ from each of the guards and a combined 51 from Hunter and Nunge despite the accumulated efforts of the officials.

Scoring drought? You betcha. Xavier went more than 5 minutes without a point and the last 7:22 of the game without a field goal. Flubbing free points? X went 16-26 (61.5%) from the line as a team, with Pitt targeting Des Claude (11/3/2, 5-10 on FT) to give the fouls.

Despite all that, it was Xavier’s newly-reliable defense that held the line. In 77 possessions, Xavier gave up just 73 points to a top-30 offense. Despite eventually fouling out of the game, Jack Nunge built a wall around the rim that was instrumental in holding Pitt’s guards 12-34 from inside the arc. Blake Hinson got 18, but he had to hit tough shots to get there and didn’t really get going until the game was analytically final, scoring 7 points in the last five minutes with the game done and dusted.

The defense didn’t force many turnovers, but they got big ones, including Souley’s snag with Pitt down 10 and 2:20 left on the clock. Rather than Greg Elliott having a clean look from deep to make the game interesting, Xavier had their point guard - who got all 14 of his points after the half - heading to the line to break the team’s scoring drought and begin salting the game away.

A year ago, Xavier hired Sean Miller to come home and put the program firmly back on the tracks. Today, they’re heading back to the Sweet 16 to take on Texas.