PORTLAND, Ore. ‒ It’s the little things, taken for granted, that can often decide big games.
That’s what Xavier head coach Sean Miller was disappointed with following a 71-64 loss to No. 8 Duke on Friday in the Phil Knight Legacy semifinals.
In a game where Duke raced to a 13-point lead early in the second half, and Xavier battled back to make it a one-possession game five different times in the second half, the Musketeers watched their chances slip away because of defensive failures, empty possessions, turnovers, or the inability to make shots that Xavier’s more than capable of making.
“I guess I’m very disappointed in today’s game, not because we lost to Duke,” Miller said, “but how it happened. I thought we really fractured within.”
There were stretches where Miller felt like his team played the right way and those were the segments where the Musketeers made it interesting.
“But there were way too many segments of the game, if not most of the game, where we were, at times, in our own way,” said Miller. “Movement, cutting, unselfishness, togetherness.
“You know, when you’re behind or you’re losing, it tests your resolve. It tests your togetherness. We weren’t the cohesive group I know we can be today.”
With 5:10 left in the game, Xavier point guard Souley Boum made a pair of free throws to make it a 65-62 game, but that was as close as the Musketeers got.
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“I thought against Florida there were times where we were close to fracturing but we kind of hung in there,” Miller said. “Duke represents a different challenge. Your room for error is a lot less.
“But our ability to stay connected and together through times when the game wasn’t going our way is a big next step for us.”
It was the first time this season that the Musketeers found themselves having to answer the question: What do you do when Jack Nunge and Zach Freemantle are both struggling?
Xavier's big men ‒ two of its most important players ‒ were a combined 3-of-19 from the field for nine points.
“Jack Nunge played with great effort. He really did,” Miller said. “He was ready for the game. He just had one of those nights where the ball didn’t go in the basket. That happens. I have absolutely no problem with Jack. But I will tell you it’s going to be difficult for us to beat a team like Duke if he goes 1-for-13.”
Miller emphasized that there was a lot more than Nunge’s shooting that plagued the Musketeers, but Xavier needed a scoring punch from Nunge and it never materialized.
Freemantle had a rough night at both ends of the floor. Early foul trouble made it hard for him to have an impact in the first half, and he only played nine minutes in the second.
The scoring punch came again from Boum, who led Xavier with 23 points, a perfect 12-of-12 from the foul line. Colby Jones got off to a great start with 10 first-half points, but he was held scoreless in the second half and only attempted two shots.
Adam Kunkel was a big reason why Xavier closed the gap in the second half with eight of his 12 points coming after the break, but the game took an unfortunate turn with just under 12 minutes remaining when Kunkel went up and contested a shot at the rim in transition, and fell hard to the ground.
Kunkel stayed down on the court for a moment, clearly bothered. He left the game and never returned.
“That hurt us as well,” Miller said when asked about Kunkel’s injury. “We had a segment in the second half and Adam was a big part of that where we got back to ball movement and cutting and we created some really great opportunities.
“I think he got hit in the head. I was just told he wasn’t able to return to the game. Whenever he went down, to play without him in the second half, that’s hard as well. That didn’t make it any easier.”
Xavier’s back in action on Sunday at 7:30 p.m. They’ll play either Gonzaga or Purdue in the third-round game, and Xavier will have to put Friday’s performance behind them to get another win against a quality opponent.
“We got no time,” Boum said. “We’re gonna play a really good team … we gotta flip the page and get our energy and out togetherness right, come together and play together.”
This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: Xavier falls to No. 8 Duke, gets Gonzaga or Purdue on Sunday