by Noah Francis
As the college basketball world shifts one month closer to March, Xavier inched one step closer to sole possession of first in the Big East following their blowout loss at Creighton.
(Photo provided, Noah Francis)
Xavier entered the game one place in front of Providence in the AP national rankings and in a three-way tie for first in the Big East (Marquette, Providence). Having already beat Marquette earlier this season, Xavier showed why they are the top team in the conference, despite losing their leading rebounder in Zach Freemantle to a left foot injury yesterday.
“We gotta fight for him,” said Colby Jones.
The high-powered offense, which is top five in the nation in both three-point and overall field goal percentage, got out to a hot start, scoring nearly 20 points in the first five minutes of the game and forcing Providence to call two timeouts. Nunge found the bottom of the net on his threes from the top of the key, while Boum and Jones led the driving attack to start the game.
It was all X for the first 10 minutes…and then it wasn’t. Providence came crawling back from a 16-point deficit to shrink the Xavier lead to 39-35 at the half. Led by the balanced attack of Devin Carter and Ed Croswell, the duo lit up the Muskies’ defense and brought their team back into the game.
Xavier could not buy a bucket as every shot attempt rimmed out of the hoop to start the second half. Providence even took the lead at 43-41 and the crowd at Cintas became eerily quiet. The arena was silent for a full two minutes, but all it took was a series of offensive putbacks to get the Muskies back on track on the offensive side.
Both teams traded baskets and the scoring went back and forth. Colby Jones lit up in the second half with several key drives in the paint to respond to several of Providence’s stepback jump shots, adding to his 20-point night. Both teams received much-needed boosts from their graduate students in Souley Boum and Noah Locke, who scored 20 and 22 respectively.
On a night when the two previous XU-PU matchups at Cintas were won by three-point game-winners, it seemed that Xavier was now poised for another one coming down the stretch. Despite shooting an abysmal 56.5% percentage from the free throw line and Locke’s consistent answers to Xavier’s offense, the score was tied at 73 with one minute left to play after a big Xavier defensive stop. Kunkel put the Muskies up three after a timeout, and Providence’s Jared Bynum banked one in to tie it up at 76. As the clock was winding down, Boum attempted a pair of three-point field goals (offensive rebound credited to Hunter) and both were off the mark. History was not going to be repeated for a third consecutive time.
Except the game went into overtime, which is where Xavier found themselves last year in their Big East battle at Providence. The 3OT thriller ended in favor of the Friars, but tonight was a different story.
Goaltending from Ed Croswell put the Muskies up two, and Bryce Hopkins used his 6’7 220 lb. frame to tie the game back up on the low post. Boum then took care of business dazzling his way into the paint and finishing with a nice layup on consecutive possessions. A Hopkins dunk followed by a Muskie turnover made the game even more intense, but Xavier’s defense stepped up in the last three seconds to force a missed three-pointer at the buzzer from Jared Bynum.
Freshman Ice: Desmond Claude converted two free throws late in overtime to give Xavier an 80-78 lead.
Explosive: With six minutes left to play in regulation, Jerome Hunter followed up a missed layup with a huge dunk that immediately got the crowd on their feet. Prior to the play, Xavier had been on the downside of a couple no calls, and the play gave the team much-needed momentum. Two minutes later, Hunter found the hoop again with an electrifying and-one.
While Hunter does not typically fill the stat sheet, the Indiana transfer definitely rises to the occasion and often gives the team the much-needed “momentum” plays when Souley and Colby’s shots aren’t falling. “Jerome’s toughness and his energy he exerted on defense [. . .] that’s how you do it right there,” Sean Miller said.
Hunter will be expected to play more minutes this upcoming month, especially in the midst of Freemantle’s absence.
Odds say the next time these two teams play against each other will be a thriller, but that game will take place at Providence one month from today. Next up, (18-5) Xavier stays in Cincinnati to play St. John’s on Saturday while (17-6) Providence looks to bounce back at home against Georgetown.