Six weeks ago, Xavier head coach Sean Miller had to try and convince himself that his team was ready to play a big home game against a ranked Indiana team.
On Saturday afternoon against an unbeaten UConn team, ranked No. 2 in the country, Miller did not need to convince himself of anything.
He knew the Musketeers were ready and he was right.
Xavier handed UConn its first loss of the season, 83-73, in front of a rowdy, sold-out Cintas Center crowd.
“I think that what you hope with all college basketball teams is that you evolve and improve as the year goes on,” said Miller. “Jerome Hunter, for example, when he played Indiana is not nearly the player that he is today. And I think we’re probably better across the board.
“… I referenced it the other day in that I didn’t know if we were able to really finish a game of that magnitude back then. I do know we have it in us now. Even if today didn’t go our way, we’ve progressed and we’re a much better group than we were then.”
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It’s Xavier’s eighth win in a row, moving the Musketeers to 12-3 overall and 4-0 in Big East Conference play.
It’s a win that means the race for a conference championship is alive and well on Victory Parkway.
Miller said before the game that he believes the Big East championship runs through UConn.
“When you beat them you have to really beat them. They don’t beat themselves,” Miller said after the game. “The fact they came here 14-0 speaks for itself.”
It was a tie game, 71-71, with 4:12 left when the Musketeers closed the game on a 12-2 run over the final 3:33.
Colby Jones made a powerful drive and finished with a reverse layup to spark the final run of the game. After starting off with four early turnovers, Jones completely turned his day around and made winning plays in crucial moments.
“That was a big reason why it was 42-31 in the second half because Colby alone was a much different and better player in the second half,” Miller said. “I’m not sure what it was. In the first half, his four turnovers, he just didn’t look like himself.
“… He put that first half behind him.”
There was a key sequence with two and a half minutes left in the game where UConn’s Andre Jackson missed a 3-pointer and Xavier’s Souley Boum came down with the rebound. Boum launched a pass the length of the floor to Zach Freemantle, who drew a questionable foul against UConn’s Tristen Newton.
Freemantle went to the line and made the first free throw to give Xavier a 74-71 lead when UConn head coach Dan Hurley was assessed a technical foul.
Boum went to the line and made both of the technical free throws, then Freemantle went back and made his second free throw to extend the lead to 77-71 with 2:25 left.
“Put yourself in my shoes,” Hurley said. “You are aware of the free throw discrepancy while the game is going on.
“… Yes, I wish I wouldn’t have said, ‘unbelievable.’ “
Xavier did have a healthy advantage at the foul line, going 23-of-28 compared to UConn’s 4-for-9. A big reason for that disparity was the Huskies shot 37 3-pointers. Xavier attempted only 13. The Musketeers were much more committed to attacking the basket, and it’s hard to generate fouls off perimeter jump shots.
But UConn added a bucket from big man Adama Sanogo, and then Jones did it again. Boum missed a 3-pointer and Jones was there for an offensive rebound put-back to give Xavier a 79-73 lead with 1:29 left.
UConn made only one of its final 10 field goal attempts and Xavier was able to put the game away at the line.
Jones and Freemantle, who added 11 rebounds, five assists and three steals, led Xavier with 16 points each.
Jack Nunge played through an illness that forced him to miss warm-ups and leave the team’s bench for an extended period at the end of the first half and the beginning of the second half. Nunge powered through it and scored 15 points in 24 minutes.
“With 30 minutes left before the tip-off, he was sleeping. We weren’t sure (if he would play),” Miller said when asked about Nunge’s situation. “He didn’t have a fever so he was cleared to play. I think it was more of food poisoning or something that happened, he woke up at 5 in the morning and just had a hard time functioning. He looked awful.
“… It says a lot about him. I said this about Colby Jones a couple of weeks ago, not everybody’s gonna give that type of effort to the team that Jack did here today. We certainly wouldn’t have won if he didn’t don’t play.”
Jerome Hunter gave Xavier a massive boost off the bench with 15 points and went a perfect 9-of-9 at the foul line. When Hunter checked out of the game at the end, he did so to a standing ovation from a sold-out crowd.
“Jerome, he was huge. He was the difference in the game tonight,” Freemantle said. “Shooting perfect from the line with that many attempts is very hard to do in a basketball game. The energy … he came in and got two offensive rebounds off the rip. Jerome’s energy today was completely contagious.”
Boum added 11 points in what may have been his worst shooting performance this season.
In a game where UConn hit 13 3-pointers and out-rebounded Xavier 38-31 with 13 offensive boards and 10 second-chance points, the Musketeers found a way to win. That says a lot about the DNA of Xavier’s ball club.
“Number one it’s big because we’re playing in the Big East right now and UConn is at the top,” said Miller. “To have a chance to play them at home and be able to beat them is a big deal. I’m not gonna say it’s not a big deal. You beat what I think is one of the best teams in college basketball. Whatever seed line they’re on, they’re gonna be near the top. And for us to be able to have that win is a big deal for our team.”