Madison Square Garden — There have been talks about this would be the last NIT championship game at Madison Square Garden, if it is true it certainly was worth the paid admittance price.
With Xavier trailing 72-71 and 26.8 seconds left, the Musketeers called a timeout to set up their final play of the game.
True to form Jack Nunge spun into the lane and kissed a shot off the glass with 3.1 seconds left in the contest to help the Musketeers (23-13) defeat Texas A&M (27-13) 73-72. With the win, it was their first NIT crown in 64 years Thursday night in front of an announced crowd of 3,551.
There were 10 ties and 17 lead changes in Thursday’s championship game between the two teams and the 17th lead change came in the waning seconds of the game.
Xavier guard Adam Kunkel got into the lane and attacked the rim, but his shot was off just a bit. Zach Freemantle snatched the offensive rebound and try to go back up but his shot was blocked out of bounds. This set the stage for Nunge’s heroics at the end.
“The play was originally for AK (Kunkel) to get a shot in the corner but I looked at Jack before. I know the players tend to slip out, so I looked at Jack to slip out, hit
him,” said Colby Jones, who inbounded the ball on the game-winning play.
Nunge, who finished with 15 points and 11 boards, earning a spot on the NIT All-Tournament team, said: “Colby looked at me and said he was going to throw me the ball and I was fortunate enough to knock down the shot.”
The Aggies was rolling in the first half taking a 40-32 lead into the break. Texas A&M shot 14-for-25 from the field in the half.
Texas A&M’s Tyrece Radford got one last shot off at the buzzer but it rimmed out, giving Xavier’s their second NIT championship in program history.
The adversity leading up to Xavier’s win on Thursday was constant topic. The Musketeers lost six of their last seven games during the regular season to miss the NCAA Tournament. Former head coach Travis Steele was let go the day after Xavier beat Cleveland State in the first round of the NIT, Sean Miller was named Steele’s successor a few days later, and the day after Miller agreed to his contract, fifth-year senior Paul Scruggs suffered a torn ACL, ending his basketball career.
“Every day coach Hayes talks about dealing with adversity,” said Nunge. “The only thing that’s guaranteed is the next day and you just to give it your all no matter the circumstances. We all just banded together. We love everybody in the locker room, we love everybody from top to bottom and we wanted to win it for each other.”
Colby Jones scored 21 points for Xavier and was selected the tournament’s most outstanding player. Dwon Odom chipped in 18 to help Xavier erase an eight-point halftime deficit.
“I can’t say enough about our guys,” Xavier coach Jonas Hayes said. “That’s what Xavier basketball is.”
There were trails and tribulations, bumps in the road, and ongoing challenges that made cutting down the nets for Xavier in Madison Square Garden all that more special.
MSG won’t host the semifinals and finals in 2023 and 2024, the NIT announced this week, saying a bid process has begun to find new sites for those years and an announcement is expected this spring. Nothing has been determined beyond 2024.
“Madison Square Garden is a special court,” Nunge said. “Everybody knows the feel when you’re playing out there and you just want to give it your all — all the history that’s there. I’m just grateful to be part of this team and have our names in the record books.”
Quenton Jackson scored 23 points for the Aggies, who were left out of the NCAA tournament despite reaching the SEC final, where they lost to the Tennessee Volunteers. It was a surprising snub by the selection committee that drew heavy criticism from Texas A&M coach Buzz Williams and others.