CINCINNATI — If only Sean Miller doesn’t run out of players.
The Xavier head coach watched as his team raced out to a 28-point lead and cruised to an 82-68 win over lowly DePaul Saturday at Cintas Center.
The Musketeers were shorthanded coming into the game, as reserve guards Desmond Claude (illness) and Kam Craft (knee) were unavailable while Zach Freemantle (broken left foot) missed his fifth straight game.
The stars were the stars, and they had to be.
Jack Nunge had 18 points, 10 rebounds and four assists while Jerome Hunter matched a season-high with 15 points and nine rebounds. He was one point shy of his career best set with Indiana two seasons ago.
Adam Kunkel, who led Xavier’s 8-for-17 first-half effort from beyond the arc, hit on 4-of-5 attempts from 3-point range to pace the Musketeers with 12 first half points. Kunkel finished with 16 points, eight assists and five rebounds.
Colby Jones was again a force on both ends with 14 points, four rebounds and four steals. And Souley Boum scored 11. All five starters were in double digits and all five starters accounted for all 49 first-half points.
Hunter turned an ankle midway through the second half. KyKy Tandy was spotted in a walking boot after the game.
What’s so frustrating about this for Miller is that in his first year back at Xavier, he is finally seeing his team play the kind of defense necessary to make noise in March.
— Mike Petraglia (@Trags) February 18, 2023
“It was very impressive at Marquette when we were incredibly short-handed,” Miller told me. “I thought we played and did a lot of great things. We ran out of steam, and we weren’t able to leave with a victory. A lot of good things we did against Marquette showed up again here today. That has to be what we continue to do.”
Then he offered this:
“Look, we’re running out of players,” Miller continued. “KyKy was hobbled. Jerome turned his ankle. We’re at the point now where we’re down to three or four scholarship guys. I’m hoping that those guys can rebound. I’m hoping Des Claude can come back. At some point, we’ve got to have the benefit of health. I don’t think I’ve been around a team that’s gone through (a situation) where five guys had flu-like symptoms the day of a game, two significant ankle injuries, one broken foot. We’ve weathered a lot of that, and again that’s to our team’s credit. But we have to get healthy here as we move down the homestretch.”
It was Xavier’s first 20-win season in the regular season since the 2017-18 campaign, something Sean Miller didn’t discount afterward.
Fresh from a 69-68 setback at No. 11 Marquette, Xavier (20-7, 12-4) rebounded from a pair of close road losses in Big East competition with a blowout win that avenged its 73-72 loss to the Blue Demons on Jan. 18 in Chicago.
Umoja Gibson had 17 points while Da’Sean Nelson added 16 for DePaul (9-18, 3-13), which has lost all eight games since upsetting Xavier on Jan. 18.
DePaul missed their first six shots and eight of their first 10, with the only two makes coming on one-handed dunks.
The Musketeers took advantage by jumping out to leads of 9-2 and 12-4 before the Blue Demons responded with a 9-0 run – capped by a Gibson three – to take a short-lived 13-12 lead, their only lead of the game.
Momentum shifted back to Xavier when Blue Demons starting forward Eral Penn was called for his second personal foul on DePaul’s next possession. Souley Boum drained a three to spark a 9-0 spurt, as Xavier reclaimed control for good.
The Blue Demons drew to within seven, 30-23, on a Nelson layup. But Xavier answered with another 9-0 run that helped the Musketeers open a 39-23 lead, capped by a Jack Nunge reverse layup with 4:59 remaining in the first half.
Xavier outscored DePaul 10-2 to take a 49-27 lead at the half. Nunge had 10 points, six rebounds and four assists while Colby Jones had 10 points, two rebounds and two steals in the first half to help Xavier pull away.
Next up, Villanova on Tuesday night at Cintas. The Wildcats, in their first year under Jay Wright replacement Kyle Neptune, lost Saturday at Providence and are entering the game with a losing record (13-14, 7-9).
If only Xavier can field a team, they should be able to handle business and keep pace with Marquette, Providence and Creighton atop the Big East.