CINCINNATI — The win was great. The emotion of the night was terrific and heartfelt.
But Xavier head coach Sean Miller knows full well that if his talented group on Victory Parkway is going to accomplish big things this month and maybe into April, then they can’t take mental breaks coming out of halftime like they did in a 78-66 win over Butler on Senior Night.
They have to be ready.
Saturday night, as was the case against Providence three nights earlier, they weren’t but held on against the Friars, 94-89. Against Marquette on the road they weren’t as lucky, losing 69-68 on a last-second bucket. Against Villanova, they committed 10 turnovers in 17 minutes of the second half and lost, 64-63.
Saturday, Xavier was up 10 at the half and allowed Butler to open the second half on a 12-6 run and make a charge at the home team. That charge would result in Butler’s only lead, 50-48, before Xavier – led by Kunkel – finally put it away.
“We just have to do a better job of coming out after halftime with some real intent,” Miller told me. “Like it counts. These next four minutes are no different than the rest of the game. I’d like to say that’s on me. I’m in search of how to help our guys in that segment. We have to fix it. I’m not saying that we have to win every four minutes of every half but you just can’t be down 10-0, 12-0, 16-2. You have to be able to come out after halftime and re-establish what you just did for the first 20 minutes.
“That’s been a problem and we’re going to work like you can’t imagine to be ready on Thursday so that whatever team we play (Seton Hall or DePaul) coming out of halftime, we can battle. We’re going to fight and we’re going to be ready.”
On Feb. 10, against the same Butler team they beat Saturday night on Senior Night, the Muskies weren’t ready to go in the second half and fell 69-67 on a fluke goaltending at the end.
Colby Jones had a game-high 20 points and Adam Kunkel added 18 on Senior Night in his final home game to lead the 19th-ranked Xavier Musketeers to their 23rd win and a handsome 15-5 Big East record, good for the No. 2 seed in the tournament that begins for them on Thursday night.
Sean Miller was grateful for Adam Kunkel's clutch play in win but Xavier coach has a warning for his team coming out slowly in second half. pic.twitter.com/yrckOWM0Se
— Mike Petraglia (@Trags) March 5, 2023
Souley Boum added 11 and Jack Nunge had 10 for Xavier (23-8, 15-5), which entered the game already locked into the No. 2 seed in this week’s Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden. Xavier is off until Thursday night, when they play the winner of the DePaul-Seton Hall game in the conference quarterfinals.
Miller said after the game Saturday that Zach Freemantle will be re-evaluated early this upcoming week and could re-join the team in New York as they try to get him ready for the NCAA tournament. Souley Boum twisted his ankle in the second half but should be good to go for the Big East tournament starting Thursday.
Before the game, graduate student stars Boum and Nunge and Kunkel were recognized with Musketeer swords in their final home game at Cintas Center.
Souley Boum, Adam Kunkel and Jack Nunge honored pregame on Senior/Grad night at Xavier. Kunkel's was particularly emotional. pic.twitter.com/0t78kBpimC
— Mike Petraglia (@Trags) March 4, 2023
Jayden Taylor had 16 and Chuck Harris added 13 for Butler (14-17, 6-14), which will be the No. 9 seed and will play No. 8 St. John’s in a first-round game Wednesday afternoon that opens the tournament.
Butler opened the game ice cold, making just four of their first 17 shots while Xavier was 8-for-16 in racing out to an 18-9 lead. Their shooting didn’t improve much through the game, finishing 3-for-16 from beyond the arc.
The Musketeers built their lead up to as many as 12, 33-21, and were in complete control for the entire first half. Kunkel, who fought back tears in his pregame presentation, led Xavier with 11 first-half points and helped the Musketeers to a 37-27 halftime lead.
Adam Kunkel and Colby Jones – each with 20 in Saturday win – say it's March and they're ready to carry Xavier. pic.twitter.com/ZL3yHRIfQ3
— Mike Petraglia (@Trags) March 5, 2023
A Chuck Harris jumper trimmed Xavier’s lead to three, 48-45, and a Jalen Thomas straightaway three tied the game. A Xavier turnover led to a Taylor steal and breakaway one-handed slam that gave Butler its first lead of the game, 50-48, with just over 12 minutes remaining.
Jack Nunge’s three put Xavier back on top for good with 11:36 left.
Xavier had a chance with 10:29 remaining to take control on a personal foul and technical foul on Simas Lukosius but missed three-of-four free throws. After a Lukosius layup cut Xavier’s lead to two, the Musketeers scored the game’s next six points as part of a 20-8 spurt to regain control.
The game marked the return of Butler head coach Thad Matta to the Cintas Center for the first time since he coached the Musketeers for three seasons between 2001-04, before leaving for Ohio State.