by Noah Francis
Fresh off of an upset over Seton Hall on Wednesday night, (10-22) Depaul faced (22-8) Xavier in the quarterfinal round of the Big East conference tournament. The Muskies entered the contest as the two seed, poised to make a great run to the championship game Saturday night. However, Depaul did not go down without a fight in this high-scoring affair.
The 36th-best team in the country for 3-point percentage (36.5%) shot the lights out making half of all of their threes and shooting 61.4% from the field. Senior guard Umoja Gibson went off for 22 points and senior center Nick Ongenda added a cool 16 points. Led by the likes of Caleb Murphy & Da’Sean Nelson, Depaul’s bench players outscored Xavier’s bench 18-3 in the first half. Depaul looked very much like a team that had already played a game the day before and was prepared to keep playing hard, inspired by second-year head coach Tony Stubblefield. The blue demons would head into the locker room with a 9-point lead, scoring nearly 50 points on Xavier’s lackluster defensive clinic in the first 20 minutes of the game.
Depaul came out hot again, converting on 5 of the first 8 scoring possessions in the second half. Then, Jack Nunge found the ball at the top of the key. Adam Kunkel nailed a couple catch-and-shoot three-pointers. Souley Boum hit the deep three-ball. All of a sudden, Xavier’s offense picked up and the Muskies went on a 7-0 run in 70 seconds to get back into the game before Depaul quickly called a timeout with 12 minutes left to play. The 61-49 lead Depaul once had was now cut down to a five-point lead.
Out of the timeout, the Muskies and Blue Demons traded buckets in an electrifying manner. It wasn’t until Jack Nunge hit a layup with 1:49 left in the game that Xavier held its first lead at 81-80 since the 3-2 mark to open the game. The comeback was due in large part to a series of clutch drives from Junior guard Colby Jones, who scored his 1,000th career point this evening.
While Jones flipped the switch on his game performance and scored 18 of his 22 points in the second half, another huge factor of their success tonight was the turnover margin in the second half. Xavier’s defense stepped up and forced 14 total turnovers while only coughing up 8 turnovers in the game on their end of the floor.
While Xavier played seven guys tonight and saw 82 of their 89 points come from starters, the conference tournament over the next two days will test their depth in preparation for the big dance coming up this time next week. Most bracket predictions have Xavier playing their first-round matchup as the #4 or #5 seed.
After two days of games in the Big East Conference tournament, the semifinals are set. #2 Xavier will play #3 Creighton Friday, March 10th at 9pm. The winner of that game will face the winner of #1 Marquette and #4 UConn.