(Photo provided, Noah Francis)
After beating Villanova in Philadelphia for the first time since they joined the Big East, the Muskies found themselves in a rematch at Cintas with their conference foe. Xavier also looked to complete their first-ever regular season sweep of the Wildcats.
Xavier entered the game in a whirlpool of questions, particularly regarding the depth of their squad going into a mid-week Big East battle. Both Zach Freemantle and Kyky Tandy, who played 24 minutes at Marquette a week ago, were seen in walking boots. Freshman guard Kam Craft injured his knee, sidelining him for 3-4 weeks. Claude, who did not play in the big win against Depaul on Saturday, returned from his illness tonight. The Muskies needed the “Next-Man-Up” mentality from DC, and he came through off the bench for a series of nice plays.
Xavier’s offense continued to roll during the first half, especially through the likes of…everyone. Boum distributed the ball and attacked the rim, Nunge made a living in the post, Hunter displayed his repertoire of fadeaway jumpers in the paint, and freshman Desmond Claude found his sweet spot with a pair of threes in front of Villanova’s bench. “They punched us in the mouth to start [. . . ] it took us a while to get adjusted to their speed,” said Kyle Neptune, head coach of the Wildcats.
It was a game of runs for twenty minutes, with Xavier making a 9-0 run and Villanova responding with their own 10-0 run. After Xavier got out to a thirteen-point lead, the game turned into a tough defensive battle down the stretch and Villanova pulled within one possession. Xavier appeared to be taking a 3-point lead into halftime until Souley Boum casually pulled up from the logo and made the field goal as the buzzer went off. 36-30 Muskies entering the break.
A slow start to the second half for the Muskies brought the Wildcats within one, but a Kunkel three at the 12-minute mark got the crowd on their feet. Then, Villanova responded and tied the game. Colby Jones quickly forced his way in the paint and converted the easy layup to give Xavier the lead. After a quick timeout, Xavier went cold from the field and the turnovers ramped up.
Despite leading the nation in assists per game (20.4 apg), The Muskies frequently had to dig themselves out of a hole from turnovers. Most of them came from entry passes into the post, where the low-post player failed to seal a defender or the passer at the top overthrew the pass. The same turnover occurred multiple times in a sequence during the second half, prompting several sighs of frustration from the crowd.
Villanova had nineteen points off Xavier’s turnovers. Seventeen of those points came in the second half.
Following a defensive stand, with a jump ball going Xavier’s way, Nunge hit a baseline floater to give the Muskies the lead again. Another turnover then lead to a Wildcat layup, and the lead changes continued. Hunter hit a floater in the paint. Another Xavier turnover. Wildcat layup.
Crazy sequence: With two minutes left in regulation, a Claude steal lead to a Kunkel layup on a fast break. The layup did not count, however, because the trailing referee blew the whistle, calling Kunkel for a traveling violation before the shot occurred. After the coaches were settled down and the crowd was put at bay, Xavier ran a play to give Kunkel another layup. This time, it counted.
Down three with one minute remaining, the defensive freshman Desmond Claude stood his ground on a drive from a senior guard, Justin Moore. Highly regarded as the leader of Villanova, Moore had 25 points. Stopping him on this possession was not easy. Boum found the ball and recorded a steal, then was quickly fouled, making both of his free throws to bring the Muskies within one.
Villanova called a timeout, and then 6-8, 255 lb. Eric Dixon came barreling down the lane, but Nunge defended the block and forced a traveling violation.
With time winding down, Souley Boum drove to the basket on the opposite end of the court, but could not get a clean look. To the credit of Villanova’s defense, “they came in ready to play,” said Nunge. Sean Miller noted the turnovers “overwhelmed us in the second half,” particularly drawing on the timeliness and types of turnovers that occurred. Xavier fell short 63-64.
As for the season finale on Saturday vs. (13-15) Butler, Nunge remained positive. “We gotta stay connected. The season isn’t defined by just one game.” Xavier will look to bounce back before the conference tournament begins next week.