By Joe Clark, Sports Editor
It certainly wasn’t a pretty , but Xavier kicked off their season with a 63-60 win over Niagara on Tuesday night at Cintas Center.
Xavier got out to a 13-5 lead on the strength of four three-pointers, but a 6-0 Niagara run cut that lead to 13-11 with 10:53 left in the first half. A three by junior big man Jack Nunge put the Musketeers up 16-11, and then senior guard Paul Scruggs made Xavier’s first two-point field goal on a fast break layup.
Xavier extended their run to 10-0 on a driving layup by sophomore guard Dwon Odom and took a 21-11 lead, but a scoring drought from 6:58 to 5:05 allowed Niagara to cut the lead to four. Colby Jones’ eighth point of the game ended the drought, but Marcus Hammond (25 points) hit two free throws to bring Niagara back within four.
Xavier ended the first half up 29-23 after a Jones dunk and Nunge layup, and while the shooting as a whole was ugly (8-25), the three-point shooting seemed promising at 40% for Xavier. However, the second half told a different story, as Xavier went 3-14 from the perimeter and 11-29 overall.
“We got open threes, they just didn’t go in,” Scruggs said. “But that’s no worry. We’ll make them next time.”
Xavier led by as much as 13 in the second half, extending their lead to 40-27 on senior Nate Johnson’s first of the night, a three from the left wing.
Xavier got sloppy, with six turnovers from 13:55 — when Johnson made his three — to 3:05 when Marcus Hammonds’ three-pointer off an offensive rebound by Greg Kuakumensah trimmed Xavier’s lead to just four at 54-50.
From that point on, Paul Scruggs took over for the Musketeers. A steal and a drawn foul put Xavier up 55-50. Then Scruggs made a fast-break layup to bring the lead back to seven with 1:53 left in the game.
“These guys look up to me as a leader, and so I was trying to take everyone under my wing and have them follow me,” Scruggs said about his end-of-game performance.
“He looked like an All-Big East guard,” Xavier Head Coach Travis Steele said after the win. “He looked like an All-American level guard. We need him to do that for 40 minutes, from the jump.”
Marcus Hammond’s driving layup had the Purple Eagles only down five, but Jerome Hunter (seven points, nine rebounds) hit some clutch free throws, and Xavier took a 61-54 lead. A Niagara three to make it 61-57 with 15 seconds left put the Cintas Center on edge, but two more Hunter free throws with one second left clinched a win for the Musketeers. Hunter was wearing the junkyard dog necklace postgame, a new award Xavier is giving the player who was the most relentless on the offensive and defensive end.
“We gotta toughen up and we gotta play more physical,” Steele said. “Defensively, I thought we were good enough, I thought we gave up some easy drives there at the end to Hammond going left, that we gotta clean up, obviously,” Steele added.
Scruggs finished with 17 points, six assists and five rebounds, while Jones chipped in 16 for the Musketeers. Xavier will get a chance for another home court win on Friday night at 6:30 p.m. when the Kent State Golden Flashes come to Cintas.