By Joe Clark, Sports Editor
Down three starters with flu-like symptoms, the Xavier Musketeers beat the Virginia Tech Hokies 59-58 Friday night at Barclays Center behind 30 points from senior guard Nate Johnson.
“I’m really proud of our group. We have gone through a lot of adversity the last few days with our crew,” Xavier Head Coach Travis Steele said. “Our guys stuck together the entire time. I thought we were the tougher team on the floor for 40 minutes.”
Starters Colby Jones, Dieonte Miles and Jerome Hunter were ruled out for the game due to an illness, the same one that caused Adam Kunkel to miss the game on Wednesday.
“We just had to stick together and play as a team, Johnson said. “We knew some people had to step up. (Jack) Nunge stepped up with 14 rebounds, big time, me with scoring, Paul (Scruggs) defensively, Dwon (Odom) defensively. AK (Adam Kunkel) was actually sick and he still played – that just shows how tough our guys are and we got the job done,” Johnson added.
Xavier struggled with turnovers coming out of the gate, as they turned the ball over four times within the first five and a half minutes. When the Musketeers got a shot up, they were hitting at an 80% clip at 4-5. However, they still trailed Virginia Tech 10-9 at the under-16 minute media timeout. Xavier went on a 13-6 run from then until there was 7:14 left in the half, with Xavier’s defense playing the way they did against Ohio State and Norfolk State, limiting Virginia Tech to just 38% from the field in the first half.
Johnson sparked Xavier’s offense with 15 first half points, including four threes. Junior big man Jack Nunge chipped in five points and eight rebounds, while senior guard Paul Scruggs had four points and four assists for the Musketeers, who shot 56% from the field and 50% from three-point range in the first half. Nahiem Alleyne led Virginia Tech with eight first half points. The Musketeers’ work on the glass was also impressive, as they outrebounded Virginia Tech 18-11.
Xavier’s offense got off to a slow start in the second half, missing their first six shots before Johnson hit a three from the right wing to give Xavier a 39-34 lead. Johnson hit a pull up jumper on the next possession, but Hunter Cattoor answered with a three to cut the Xavier lead to 41-37. The lead would be trimmed to three with 9:54 to go when Alleyne hit a three to make it 45-42, and after Virginia Tech missed a three on their next possession, Xavier Head Coach Travis Steele took a timeout. Virginia Tech kept chipping away and cut the lead to 49-47 after a three by guard Sean Pedulla, and Pedulla tied the game up on the next possession with a jumper.
A turnover by senior guard Adam Kunkel gave Virginia Tech the opportunity to take the lead, and they did just that with a jumper by Alleyne to put them up 51-49. The game would be back-and-forth the rest of the way, but a bucket by Keve Aluma with 45 seconds left gave Virginia Tech a two-point lead. Aluma got fouled on the play but missed the free throw, which set up Nate Johnson to make his seventh three of the game and put Xavier up 59-58.
“It was just play Xavier basketball,” Johnson said about the play. “We had nothing really set up, we were just looking for an open shot and my teammate Dwon (Odom) is a hard driver and he looked at me and got me open. I made the shot.”
Cattoor got a look at the hoop to end the game but missed, and the putback attempt was also no good and Xavier walked away with a gutsy 59-58 win.
“Nate (Johnson) was terrific, I mean terrific. He had seven 3 pointers. I’ve said this before – Nate (Johnson) is the best shooter in the country, and I don’t think it’s even close. Those numbers will always bury themselves out over time,” Steele said about his senior guard.
“This win is for everybody in the program,” Nunge said. The guys who are at the hotel sick, we gave them a call. It’s an exciting win for us. I’m sure they wish they could be out there with us.”
Xavier also got some good news when the team found out that junior forward Zach Freemantle was cleared to return to basketball activities. Fremantle will practice with the team for the first time during their next practice.
Xavier gets back in action on Wednesday night at Cintas Center against the Central Michigan Chippewas.