By Joe Clark, Sports Editor
Iowa transfer junior Jack Nunge and senior guard Paul Scruggs came through for Xavier men’s basketball as they upset No. 19 Ohio State 71-65 in a game Xavier never trailed. The win moved the Big East to 5-2 in the Gavitt Games.
Xavier got out to an early 6-2 lead and their level of effort on the defensive side of the ball was the highest it’s been all season. The Musketeers held Ohio State to a 1-9 start from the field, and at the under-16 minute media timeout held a 6-5 advantage on the boards. Xavier extended their lead to 17-11 with 10:26 left to play, and forced Ohio State into five turnovers.
Offensively, Xavier was just 1-6 from three-point range but 8-15 from the field. Sophomore big Dieonte Miles was in early foul trouble, picking up three fouls within the first eight minutes of the game, but Nunge was effective off the bench, playing solid interior defense.
Senior guard Adam Kunkel was the star for Xavier early, contributing eight points and three assists in the first 12 minutes of the game while adding a steal on the defensive side of the ball. Xavier went into the half with a 35-26 lead, and outrebounded Ohio State in the first half 22-16.
Overall, it was the best half of basketball Xavier played, especially defensively with nine forced turnovers and holding OSU to just a 10-30 mark from the field. Freshman guard Meechie Johnson Jr. led Ohio State with nine points at the half.
The second half was more of the same, but Xavier started out a little bit slow offensively. Their defensive effort helped them maintain a nine point lead with 11:05 left in the game at 44-35. Nate Johnson’s first three of the game in the second half put him at 4-5 shooting on the night, and he had a team-high nine points after sinking the three with 17:13 to go.
Nunge dominated during the second half, as he had six points and nine rebounds in the first 12 minutes of the half en route to a double-double with 14 points and 14 rebounds. However, OSU’s offense picked up and they cut the Xavier lead to 54-49 with 6:12 left to play.
“Jack Nunge was incredible for us tonight,” Xavier Head Coach Travis Steele said after the win. “He can do a lot of different things out on the floor, he gives us a presence around the rim on the offensive end. He rebounds the ball at a very, very high level, he’s just so intelligent. He gives us a lot of poise out there on the floor,” Steele added.
Johnson knocked down his second three of the half with 4:56 to go, and Xavier extended their lead to 57-49. A 5-0 OSU run with a three-pointer and a layup by Johnson Jr. made it a one possession game with Xavier leading 57-54 with 3:29 left in the game. E.J. Liddell knocked down a three for OSU to make it a 67-64 game after a Paul Scruggs finish at the rim, but Scruggs came up big with a violent dunk over Liddell to make it a two-possession game at 67-62 with 25.9 seconds to play.
“I thought we were getting great shots, they just weren’t falling,” Steele said. “I think that dunk will go down as one of the best in Xavier’s history.”
A three by Jamari Wheeler cut the lead to two, but Scruggs was clutch at the line, finishing with 14 points (10 of which came in the second half) and Xavier walked away with a 71-65 win.
Xavier is back in action on Sunday at Cintas when they take on Norfolk State at noon.