March Madness 2023: Xavier overcomes 13-point deficit, avoids major upset from No. 14 seed Kennesaw State

Xavier's Jack Nunge sealed win with clutch block in final seconds

Jack Nunge made the play Xavier desperately needed.

Nunge, the Musketeers’ 7-foot senior, came through with the clutch block of Kennesaw State’s Terrell Burden to allow his team to escape the first round of the NCAA men's tournament with a 72-67 win and avoid becoming the latest highly seeded team to be upset by a double-digit seed.

At the time of Nunge’s block, Xavier was clinging to a 68-67 lead in the game’s final seconds. 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 that position.

The No. 3 seed Musketeers fell behind the No. 14 seed Owls at halftime and saw that deficit grow as large as 13 points midway through the second half.

But then Kennesaw State’s offense went cold. The Owls, playing in their first NCAA tournament game at the Division I level, missed 12 consecutive field goal attempts over an eight-minute span. During that drought by the Owls, Xavier surged into the lead via a 15-0 scoring run that flipped a 61-48 deficit into a 63-61 lead.

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

On the ensuing possession, Kennesaw’s Kasen Jennings tied the score with an off-balance layup at the 1:22 mark, but Xavier ended up scoring the game’s final five points to come away with the victory.

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

From there, Xavier tacked on four more free throws to seal the five-point win.

Kennesaw State nearly completes the upset

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

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

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

And for much of Friday's game, the Owls looked like the tougher, more-determined team. Xavier jumped out to an early 20-11 lead, but the Owls stormed back and took a 43-36 lead into halftime.

Midway through the second half, Kennesaw State looked well on its way to the first NCAA tournament victory in program history. Instead, Xavier turned up the heat — especially on defense.

As Xavier began to mount its comeback, the Owls tightened up on offense and just could not get anything to fall. Meanwhile, Xavier's stars took over. Jerome Hunter led the way with 24 points while Nunge, Kunkel, Souley Boum and Jones all made plays down the stretch to ensure that the Musketeers did not go home early.

By pulling out the win, Xavier avoided becoming the 23rd No. 3 seed to fall to a No. 14 seed in the first round. The most recent came in 2021 when Abilene Christian bested Texas.