Xavier overcomes 13-point deficit, avoids major upset from No. 14 seed Kennesaw State

Jack Nunge made the piece Xavier desperately needed.

Nunge, the Musketeers’ 7-foot eldest, scored with Kennesaw State’s Terrell Burden clutch block to help his team escape the first round of the NCAA Men’s Tournament with a 72 win. -67 and avoid becoming the last high-ranked team to be upset by a double-digit seed.

When Nunge was blocked, Xavier held a 68-67 lead in the dying seconds of the game. Burden looked to have a path to the rim that would give the underdog Owls a late lead, but Nunge slid to his left and made a massive defensive play.

It took a huge comeback for Xavier to even be in this position.

The No. 3-seeded Musketeers fell behind the No. 14-seeded Owls at halftime and saw that deficit increase to 13 points midway through the second half.

But then the Kennesaw State offense cooled. The Owls, playing their first NCAA Tournament game at the Division I level, missed 12 straight field goal attempts in eight minutes. During that Owls drought, Xavier took the lead via a 15-0 run that turned a 61-48 deficit into a 63-61 lead.

Even after that dry spell, Kennesaw State still had a chance to win. A jumper Demond Robinson gave the Owls a 65-64 lead with 2:04 remaining, but Xavier’s Adam Kunkel answered with a 3-pointer to put the Musketeers ahead, 67-65.

On the ensuing possession, Kennesaw’s Kasen Jennings tied the game with a lopsided layup at 1:22, but Xavier ended up scoring the game’s final five points to take the win.

A Colby Jones free throw with 18 seconds left gave Xavier the lead, setting the stage for Nunge’s clutch block as the clock ticked below five seconds.

From there, Xavier added four more free throws to seal the victory in five points.

GREENSBORO, NORTH CAROLINA – MARCH 17: Adam Kunkel #5 of the Xavier Musketeers shoots a three-pointer against the Kennesaw State Owls during the second half of the first round of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament at Fieldhouse in Greensboro Coliseum on March 17, 2023 in Greensboro, North Carolina. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Kennesaw State nearly completes surprise

Kennesaw State has come a long way in a few seasons under head coach Amir Abdur-Rahim.

The school moved to the Division I level in 2005 and had never had a season with a record above .500 before that year. In fact, the Owls endured a miserable 1-28 record in the 2019-20 season, Abdur-Rahim’s first charge.

Over the next two seasons, the Owls went 18-37 combined with a 9-21 mark in Atlantic Sun play. But this season, the Owls shared the Atlantic Sun regular season crown with Liberty before beating the Flames in the conference tournament title game.

And for much of Friday’s game, the Owls looked like the toughest, most determined team. Xavier took an early 20-11 lead, but the Owls stormed back and took a 43-36 halftime lead.

Midway through the second half, Kennesaw State looked set for the first NCAA Tournament win in program history. Instead, Xavier turned up the heat, especially in defence.

As Xavier started to mount his comeback, the Owls tightened their offense and just couldn’t knock anything down. Meanwhile, the stars of Xavier have taken over. Jerome Hunter led the way with 24 points while Nunge, Kunkel, Souley Boom and Colby Jones all made plays in the streak to ensure the Musketeers didn’t head home early.

Picking up the win, Xavier avoided becoming the 23rd seeded No. 3 to drop to a No. 14 seed in the first round. The most recent came in 2021 when Abilene Christian beat Texas.