Xavier's Jerome Hunter tallied a career-high 24 in Friday's first-round win over Kennesaw State. (Photo: Xavier Athletics)
GREENSBORO, N.C. – For about three-quarters of the day Friday, things could not have possibly gone any better for Kennesaw State fans. They were in their first-ever NCAA tournament, their team had the lead, and everything seemed to be on their side. Terrell Burden had just put home a layup that gave the Owls a 13-point lead with under 10 minutes remaining.
Then, Xavier turned up the heat.
The Musketeers used a 15-0 run over a five-minute, 43-second stretch of the second half, compelling 11-straight missed shots from 14th-seeded Kennesaw State. Third-seeded Xavier fended off a late Owl response, claiming a 72-67 victory in first-round NCAA action in the Greensboro Coliseum.
“That was just a really hard-fought victory for us,” Xavier coach Sean Miller said after the game. “First, you know, I want to give Kennesaw State a lot of credit. It wasn't just that we were off or didn't play well. They had a lot to do with us not playing well.”
The first half could not have ended better for the Owls. Kennesaw State (26-9) broke open a game knotted at 34 over the final five minutes of the period, using a 9-2 burst in that period to take a 43-36 advantage to the interval. KSU shot 53.1 percent (17-for-32) in the half and knocked down five tries from beyond the arc.
The feisty underdog continued its performance into the second half. KSU tore off an 8-0 run early in the period, opening up a 13-point lead at 51-38. The sides split the next 20 points, with KSU maintaining a 61-48 lead with 9:57 to play after the aforementioned Burden layup.
That’s when Xavier (26-9) made its move.
Jerome Hunter and Souley Boum scored 11 of the next 13 points over a three-and-a-half minute period to draw the game level. A Jack Nunge free throw gave X its first lead since the 5:22 mark of the first half, with a Colby Jones free throw extending the advantage to two. After Brandon Stroud connected on a pair of free throws at the other end to again level the game, Xavier’s veteran presence showed itself.
“I thought throughout the game we had a couple of shots we normally make,” Miller said. “We didn't, but I thought we converted off of individual plays, off of transition opportunities, maybe a couple of set plays. I thought we got a couple of good looks and knocked them in.
“I thought it was almost like the lid came off the basket. We got stops. Stops maybe gave us a little bit more confidence. As our confidence grew, I thought we really settled in. Really the last 10 to 12 minutes of the game, in the first four minutes of the game, that's when I thought we were playing our style, and that's why we showed up as a three-seed.”
“We did some things early on both ends of the court that helped build that 13-point lead, but if anybody in that building, you know, thought that was going to be how the game stayed, you hadn't watched much basketball in March, and you probably haven't watched much basketball in general,” Kennesaw State coach Amir Abdur-Rahim said.
“We've been on the right side of it a lot this year. Today wasn't our day. We're going to just continue to respond.”
Demond Robinson put home a bucket to again give Kennesaw the lead, but Xavier nearly immediately countered. Adam Kunkel knocked down a triple to again provide the Musketeers a two-point margin with 1:44 remaining.
“(Kunkel) had a huge three-point shot. Maybe the biggest offensive play in the game,” Miller said.
Kasen Jennings countered the Kunkel make with a jumper that again leveled the contest. Following a made free throw by Jones, Kennesaw had one last chance to play Cinderella and create a memorable moment in its maiden tournament voyage. The Owls turned to their quick veteran guard, Burden. Burden drove the paint and looked to get the ball onto the glass and sink the Musketeers. Nunge had other ideas, however, blocking Burden’s try and essentially claiming the win for his side.
“Yeah, it was definitely designed (for me to take the shot),” Burden said. “We didn't get the result we wanted, but that was a great play on I think it was Nunge, yeah. It was a great play by him to meet me at the rim.
“Although it didn't end the way I would have liked it to end, it's a learning experience for me, and I take it as an opportunity for next time because it's going to be another moment where I can get another chance to drive to the paint, and the next time hopefully I learn from my mistakes, and I execute.”
“We had that inkling,” Nunge said of the hypothesis that Burden may run that play. “In the time-out we were supposed to switch everything, and, you know, I saw Boum. He got around Boum. He's a really good driver at getting to the rim and I just came over and blocked it.”
Boum then put home four free throws in the final second-plus to ice the result.
Hunter paced the Musketeers with 24 points, connecting on 8-of-11 from the field and scoring a career high. Hunter also added makes on all eight of his free throw tries. Boum added 17 on a 5-for-13 day, connecting on all six of his attempts from the stripe. Jones tallied 12 points and six boards, while Nunge collected a double-double with 10 points and 11 boards. Xavier hit 46.2 percent (24-for-52) from the field, despite just two of 12 tries from beyond the arc finding the net. The Musketeers sank 22-of-30 (73.3 percent) from the line.
Burden and Chris Youngblood guided the Owl scorers, accumulating 14apiece. Burden hit 6-of-16 from the field and added seven boards. Youngblood hit 5-of-10. Spencer Rodgers added 10 for the Owls, making good on 4-of-8. The Owls shot 42.2 percent (27-of-64) from the field, despite hitting just 31.3 percent (10-of-32) in the second twenty and missing all seven tries from distance. KSU finished by hitting two of its final 15 shots.
Xavier advances to Sunday’s second round, where it will battle the winner of the game between sixth-seeded Iowa State and 11th-seeded Pitt. Game time will be announced later Friday.