Xavier Musketeers win second NIT title by beating Texas A&M

NEW YORK – It was a game fit for a title.

There were 10 ties and 17 lead changes in Thursday’s National Invitation Tournament championship game at Madison Square Garden between Xavier and Texas A&M, and the 17th lead change came in the final seconds.

With Xavier trailing 72-71 and 26.8 seconds left, the Musketeers called timeout to set up one final play.

Mar 31, 2022; New York, New York, USA; Xavier Musketeers guard Colby Jones (3) and Xavier Musketeers guard Adam Kunkel (5) hug Xavier Musketeers interim head coach Jonas Hayes after the NIT college basketball finals against the Texas A&M Aggies at Madison Square Garden.
Mar 31, 2022; New York, New York, USA; Xavier Musketeers guard Colby Jones (3) and Xavier Musketeers guard Adam Kunkel (5) hug Xavier Musketeers interim head coach Jonas Hayes after the NIT college basketball finals against the Texas A&M Aggies at Madison Square Garden.

Xavier guard Adam Kunkel got downhill and attacked the basket, but his shot was off the mark. Zach Freemantle collected the offensive rebound and his shot was blocked out of bounds, keeping the ball with Xavier and a little more than five seconds left on the clock.

Xavier ran a baseline entry play and got the ball to Jack Nunge, who spun into the lane and kissed a shot off the glass to give Xavier a 73-72 lead with 3.1 seconds left.

"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 shot.

Nunge, who finished with 15 points and 11 rebounds, 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."

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Texas A&M's Tyrece Radford got one last shot off at the buzzer and it rattled in and out, securing Xavier's second NIT championship in program history.

The adversity leading up to Xavier's win on Thursday has been mentioned often. 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 three days later, and the day after Miller and Xavier agreed to a deal, fifth-year senior Paul Scruggs suffered a torn ACL, ending his Xavier 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 have 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."

Texas A&M head coach Buzz Williams acknowledged that adversity after the game.

"In my 28 years as a college coach, every head coach at Xavier has been ultra-successful," Williams said. "I worked a camp at Xavier when Pete Gillen was the head coach and I had just finished my freshman year in college. And what has happened in their program over the last two weeks is historical and any (athletic director) that has a job opening should hire the undefeated head coach at Xavier, coach Hayes."

Hayes' mother, Yvonne, and his twin brother, Jarvis, were there on Thursday in Madison Square Garden to watch.

When asked about what Williams said, Hayes said: "Yeah, that's special. ... People don't remember interim coaches, you know. But it's an unbelievable opportunity to do it in front of my family. It's a surprise they came for the game. But I think what's more extraordinary, what I got was to have the adversity that they had but also have the competitive drive, competitive greatness to pull it all together and winning a championship. I think that's more astonishing."

There were ups and downs, bumps in the road, and an ongoing list of challenges that made cutting down the nets in Madison Square Garden all the more special.

"It means a lot, just knowing what all our team went through, all the ups and downs, we just all stick together," said Jones, who had a career-high 21 points and was named the NIT's Most Outstanding Player. "Really showed that we have a true bond and we play for one another. It just means the world for this group to win a postseason championship."

There's a mountain-high list of important things that happened over the course of 40 minutes on Thursday night. There were blocked shots, key rebounds, passes on time and on target, shots made and missed, and arguably Dwon Odom's best performance in a Xavier uniform with 18 points, but what it really boiled down to was this team never gave up, they never stopped fighting for each other.

Because of that, the Musketeers earned a memory that they'll get to keep long after they're done playing basketball.

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This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: NIT championship: Xavier Musketeers beat Texas A&M Aggies