NEW YORK — The Xavier Musketeers are now one win away from successfully completing their redemption tour, and would do so on the same floor where their once promising season hit its nadir.
Zach Freemantle, Adam Kunkel and Jack Nunge each scored 18 points as the Musketeers raced to a 15-point halftime lead before holding off a furious rally to defeat St. Bonaventure 84-77 to advance to the NIT championship game on Thursday. In the nightcap, Texas A&M continued its dominating run through the field with a 72-56 victory over Washington State, the Aggies’ fourth win in as many games in the tournament by at least 12 points.
A postseason game in New York City appeared to be a pipe dream for the Musketeers just over a month ago when it was ranked in the top 30 of the NET rankings and sporting a 16-5 record to begin the month of February — a record that included wins against eventual NCAA Tournament teams Ohio State, Virginia Tech, Marquette and a season sweep of Creighton. A season-defining 2-8 stretch ensued, capped off by a heart-wrenching 89-82 overtime loss to Butler in the first round of the Big East Tournament at The World’s Most Famous Arena that sealed the Musketeers’ tournament fate: a trip to the NIT, and a fourth consecutive season missing the NCAA Tournament.
Their run to New York has been as tumultuous as their last month, with then-head coach Travis Steele stepping down from his post, former Georgia standout player Jonas Hayes serving as the interim coach and coach-in-waiting Sean Miller returning to the school after being named the new head coach last week. In the Musketeers’ second-round win over Florida, the team’s second leading scorer and the school’s all-time leader in games player, Paul Scruggs, tore his ACL. But they have made it back to the Garden once again, and, after giving up the game’s first two points, dominated the Bonnies the rest of the half, going up as much as 19 before heading into the half with a 38-23 lead.
St. Bonaventure, who also saw a once promising season (it was ranked No. 23 in the preseason AP Poll and won the Charleston Classic with wins over eventual NCAA Tournament teams Boise State and Marquette) crater, stormed back in the second half, buoyed by an atmosphere that was Reilly Center South due to the number of fans that came down from Olean. Dominick Welch’s three-pointer with 5:38 left cut the Bonnies’ deficit to five at 65-60, eliciting a noise as deafening as any heard in the arena for the Knicks during their season.
That’s as close as the Bonnies came, however, with an Adam Kunkel three one minute later giving Xavier a 70-61 lead, and the lead for the Musketeers was at least six points the rest of the way.
Welch led the Bonnies with 25 points, and he is one of five seniors who was in the starting lineup. Though all of the starters have one extra year of eligibility remaining due to the blanket COVID year, it remains to be seen if all or any of the starters — Jalen Adaway, Osun Osunniyi, Kyle Lofton, Jaren Holmes and Welch — will return to school.
*Editor’s note: Above the byline is the photo gallery from Tuesday’s NIT seminfinals, with all photos taken by ALOST photographer Jenny Rohl. After clicking on the first photo to enlarge the picture, make sure to press the left and right arrow buttons to scroll through the rest of the pictures. There are 31 pictures in total.