Before Xavier’s men’s basketball team took the floor Tuesday night against Vanderbilt in a quarterfinal game of the National Invitation Tournament, the team FaceTimed fifth-year Paul Scruggs, who tore the anterior cruciate ligament two days earlier in a win over Florida.
“We were all like, ‘Let’s do something for Paul, put on Paul’s shirts and show people who we’re doing this for,'” Adam Kunkel said.
When the Musketeers took the court for warm-ups, they did so wearing No. 1 jerseys with Scruggs’ name on the back. Some even wore custom Scruggs t-shirts.
They FaceTimed Scruggs again after the game: a thrilling 75-73 win that sends Xavier back to Madison Square Garden next week for an NIT semifinal game against St. Bonaventure.
“He was with us at the meeting (after the game),” Nate Johnson said.
To which Kunkel added: “He is always with us.”
If anyone was wondering why Xavier wanted to play at the NIT and continue his season, Tuesday night was a 40-minute answer to that question.
“I’m not surprised at all,” interim head coach Jonas Hayes said, “because that’s the kind of guys we have in our locker room. We don’t have people who give up. We don’t have guys who hang their heads and want to stop playing. “.
The Musketeers were trailing Vanderbilt by 10 points early in the second half, then went on a 9-0 run, only for the Commodores to gain some separation again and take a 66-57 lead over Xavier with 6:05 left. .
Like “The Goonies” though, Xavier wouldn’t say die.
The Musketeers proceeded to close out the game with a run of 18-7.
Every time it looked like Vanderbilt might walk away, Xavier responded.
Johnson scored all 12 of his points in the final 12 minutes of the game.
Kunkel gave Xavier a 71-70 lead with a baseline jumper with 2:01 left.
With the game tied at 72-72, Jack Nunge made one of the plays of the game with a steal and Kunkel did damage at the other end.
Kunkel drove it off the wing, got to the rim and finished off, giving Xavier a 74-72 lead with 57 seconds left.
“That was the look, but Adam Kunkel’s middle name is ‘improv,'” Hayes said. “… So at that point, we give Adam Kunkel the leeway or the license to make plays, but we also understand how he protects the defense, so I’m fine with that.”
After a miss by Vanderbilt and a loss by Xavier at the other end, the Commodores called a timeout with seven seconds remaining. After a series of timeouts, Vanderbilt hit the ball over the top of the key around midcourt and Colby Jones tried to steal and was fouled.
Vanderbilt’s Jordan Wright went to the line and missed the front end of a one-on-one and Jones grabbed the rebound and was fouled with four seconds left. He made one of two down the line and up 75-72, Xavier fouled Scotty Pippen Jr. before he could get off a 3-point attempt. Pippen Jr. made the first free throw and intentionally missed the second. Zach Freemantle grabbed the rebound and an inadvertent whistle stopped the game, so Xavier had to flick the ball out with 1.5 seconds left.
The Musketeers turned the ball over on serve and the Commodores took one last look with one second left on the clock, but the shot went just wide.
One of the redeeming qualities of sports is how revealing they can be. You can learn a lot about a team in times of uncertainty.
This has been an uncertain week for Xavier, a team that saw former head coach Travis Steele part ways with the team, hired a new head coach in Sean Miller and saw its primary leader suffer a knee injury that ended with the season.
“These guys love to play with each other,” Kunkel said. “We’re very close as a family. We have brothers in this locker room. We just don’t want that to end. Every game, we go out there, we play our best. We know it could be our last game. But just keep fighting, fighting to play the next game. . Let’s get one more. Let’s get one more. We don’t want it to end.”
Xavier had five players score in double figures, led by Freemantle’s 16 points. Jones added 15, Kunkel had 14, Johnson had 12 and Nunge had 10.
Hayes said, “We expect adversity though. When you expect adversity, you see a lot of people make mistakes when they go through life and think it’s all going to be ice cream, peaches and cotton candy. No, no. That’s not reality. Expect adversity.” , that will allow you to fight against it.”
This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: NIT 2022: Xavier Musketeers vs. St. Bonaventure Bonnies in semifinals