Second-half cold spell drops Kennesaw State in NCAA Tournament

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Mar. 17—GREENSBORO, N.C. — With 9:57 to play in the second half, Terrell Burden drove the lane for a layup to put Kennesaw State up 61-48 and on the verge of winning the biggest basketball game in its history.

Xavier had other plans.

The Musketeers closed the game on a 24-6 run to break Cinderella's glass slipper and send the Owls home with a 72-67 loss Friday at the Greensboro Coliseum, in the first round of the NCAA Tournament's Midwest Region.

Still, with 13 seconds left to play, 14th-seeded Kennesaw State (26-9) had a chance to grab a victory from third-seeded Xavier (26-9).

After inbounding the ball in front of its bench, Burden had the ball at the top of the key. As he had done many times before this season, the Campbell High School alum drove the lane with the idea of putting the Owls back on top late in the game.

This time, Xavier 7-footer Jack Nunge was able to get a piece of the ball and kept it from getting to the rim. From that point, the Musketeers were able to put the game away at the free-throw line and move on to face either Pittsburgh or Iowa State in the second round.

"We didn't get the result we wanted, but that was a great play (by) Nunge," said Burden, who finished with 14 points and seven rebounds. "It was a great play by him to meet me at the rim. Although it didn't end the way I would have liked it to end, it's a learning experience for me, and I take it as an opportunity for next time, because there's going to be another moment where I can get another chance to drive to the paint, and the next time, hopefully I learn from my mistakes and I execute.

"But I can't ask for it to end any (other) way, if I'm 100 percent honest with you. Being that I wanted to win, I feel like this is part of the learning experience that, not only I have to go through, but we as a program have to go through to learn how to sustain wins like this.

"So it might hurt as of right now, but we've got to let it go, and we've got to just — man, we're just blessed to be in this position. We've said it a couple of times we're going to be back, but we stand on that."

While it may not have been the outcome Kennesaw State wanted, it did not take away from the greatest of its 18-year Division I era.

Just three years ago, in Amir Abdur-Rahim's first season as coach, the Owls were 1-28, but this year's 26 wins were 12 more than they had ever had in Division I. Kennesaw State also won the ASUN Conference's regular-season and tournament titles — after it was picked to finish eighth in the league before the season started.

The season also saw the emergence of a quartet of stars in guards Burden, Chris Youngblood and Brandon Stroud, as well as forward Demond Robinson.

Burden became the undisputed leader of the team and showed exactly what that has meant with his play down the stretch. Youngblood earned first-team all-ASUN honors, Stroud proved why he was the conference defensive player of the year and Robinson became the force inside that Abdur-Rahim thought he could be when he transferred in from Murray State.

Those four are all set to be back next season. At this point, only Spencer Rodgers and Alex Peterson have exhausted their eligibility, meaning Kennesaw State will likely be favored to win the ASUN again next year and be right back in the NCAA Tournament.

When asked if this was the start of something big for Kennesaw State basketball going forward, Abdur-Rahim became emotional, and a tear could be seen rolling down his face.

"With all due respect, the beginning was four years ago," the Cobb County native said. "We are here today because — these are tears of joy, because we made a commitment to this university. We made a commitment to these guys sitting next to me that we were going to show up every day for. When you get to a place like this — these are tears of joy — because it takes a special group of people to commit to something and stay and see that vision through. The beginning was four years ago. You better believe this is our standard. This is our expectation, and we will be back."

For quite awhile Friday, it looked like it would be the Owls flying into the second round.

Trailing 23-17 with 11:35 to play in the first half, Kennesaw State quickly erased the deficit with back-to-back 3-pointers by Youngblood and Simeon Cottle to tie the game. A layup by Rodgers the next time down the floor gave the Owls their first lead of the night at 25-23.

With 5:21 to play before halftime, Burden's layup and a 3-pointer by Youngblood, who finished with 14 points, gave Kennesaw State the lead again at 34-33 — one it would keep into halftime. Robinson, who had eight points and eight rebounds, scored on an alley-oop dunk, Peterson scored on a layup and, with the time on the shot clock running out, Rodgers pulled up from 35 feet and made a 3 to put the Owls up 41-34.

The score was 43-36 at the half.

"I want to give Kennesaw State a lot of credit," Xavier coach Sean Miller said. "It wasn't just that we were off or didn't play well. They had a lot to do with us not playing well. They're a very well-coached team. I thought their guard play was outstanding. They're good on defense and offense. They change defenses. For a period of time, maybe that took us out of rhythm."

Kennesaw State opened the second half how it ended the first. It went on an 8-0 run, highlighted by a jumper by Youngblood, a layup from Burden, a driving layup from Cottle — who finished with seven points — and a tip-in from Rodgers, who finished with 10.

With the lead 51-38 with 15:46 to play, the teams began trading baskets, and while Kennesaw State answered every Xavier basket, the Musketeers began to gain momentum.

Miller said the lid came off the basket with Kennesaw State's lead at 61-48, and Xavier went on an 11-0 run over a period of 3:14 to cut the lead to two. A layup by Souley Boum, who had 17 points, tied the game, and then free throws from Nunge and Colby Jones put the Musketeers up 63-61.

Nunge finished with 10 points and 10 rebounds, Boum had 17 points and Jerome Hunter led Xavier with a career-high 24.

"Basketball is a game of runs. In March, you're not playing a bad team, right?" Abdur-Rahim said. "We did some things early on both ends of the court that helped build that 13-point lead, but if anybody in that building, you know, thought that was going to be how the game stayed, you hadn't watched much basketball in March."

A pair of free throws from Stroud with 3:36 to play brought the Owls' 6-minute, 11-second scoring drought to an end and tied the game again.

Robinson's jumper with 2 minutes to play put Kennesaw State back on top and Kasen Jennings' layup moments later tied the game at 67-all.

That, however, proved to be the Owls' final points as the Musketeers came out on top.

"This is not going to be a one-off thing for us," Abdur-Rahim said. "Like (Burden) said, we plan to be here year in and year out. Where somebody might say it stings, I see growth. I see to get better not only as a coach, but an opportunity to help my players grow. We've been on the right side of it a lot this year. Today wasn't our day. We're going to just continue to respond."