Xavier struggles to close, wins by 2

The Musketeers led by as much as 15 points in the second half against Butler

By Joe Clark, Sports Page Editor

Despite their best efforts to give the game away, Xavier took care of business against Butler at Cintas Center on Wednesday with a 68-66 win. Junior forward Zach Freemantle led the Musketeers with 23 points in a dominant performance.

The two teams were knotted up at 10-10 eight minutes into the game after a jumper by graduate guard Aaron Thompson. Xavier took a 15-10 lead after senior guard Adam Kunkel was fouled on a made jumper and knocked down the free throw. 

Xavier started the game 8-10 from inside the arc but 0-6 from beyond it. Xavier’s inability to make threes prevented them from pulling away in the first half, and with 3:41 left Xavier led by five, 22-17. 

Freemantle had seven points and three rebounds, and Kunkel had five points and five rebounds in the early going. With 35 seconds to go in the first half, junior forward Jerome Hunter hit Xavier’s first three of the game and the Musketeers went into the halftime break up 29-26.

“I thought our shot selection was good,” Xavier Head Coach Travis Steele said. “I thought we were getting great looks, I thought we ran better offense, I thought our ball moved,” he added. “If you try and force things in basketball, you’re gonna look bad.”

An 8-2 Xavier run to open the second half gave them a nine-point lead, and they grew the lead to 11 at 41-30 after a Kunkel jumper with 14:12 left in the game. 

Xavier dominated in the paint, with 34 of their first 47 points coming from inside. It was a throwback game, with Xavier struggling to make threes but winning with their interior presence and defense. Freemantle was the spark for Xavier, and his three to put Xavier up 52-40 with just over eight minutes to go energized the Cintas crowd. 

Freemantle seemed to have regained his stroke from the perimeter in the second half, as he knocked down another one a few minutes later and Xavier took a 60-46 lead with six minutes left to play.

“Shooters shoot,” Freemantle said. 

Butler hung around late, as a three by senior forward Bryce Golden with 1:57 left put the Bulldogs within eight at 64-56. A layup by sophomore Chuck Harris made it a six-point game with just over a minute left. Freshman Jayden Taylor converted a three-point play with 56 seconds left and Butler was within four at 65-61. 

Freemantle went 2-2 from the line with 19.4 seconds left to give Xavier some breathing room at 67-61, but then freshman Simas Lukosius got a putback and was fouled. He missed the free throw, but Butler got the offensive board. With 8.2 seconds left, Xavier led 67-63.

 A missed layup by Harris with three seconds left and subsequent rebound by Hunter sealed the win for the Musketeers. 

A last-second three by Taylor made the game appear a little closer than it was, but Xavier walked away with a 68-66 win. 

It was Freemantle’s second game against Butler where he finished in double figures. 

“They didn’t have two bigs in the game the whole time, so if they only got one big, me or Nunge is gonna be fine in the post,” Freemantle said. “On top of that, we knew what they were doing, so if they’re gonna come out, we’re gonna flip our hips and try to get high lows and not let them touch the ball, because that’s all they try to do.”

“We’re not gonna finish that way ever again,” Steele said. 

Xavier returns to action at Cintas on Saturday at 2:00 p.m. against DePaul. Xavier won the last matchup 68-67.