The opening game of the Big East Tournament started as a snooze fest. It ended as anything-but.
At Xavier, they call any time the defense gets three consecutive stops a “kill.” To open the 2022 Big East Tournament, the Musketeers recorded six straight stops, recording two kills. It took Butler nearly four minutes to get on the board for the first time. For Xavier, it happened on the first possession. Jack Nunge and Paul Scruggs attacked Butler’s interior and got the scoring going early.
Zach Freemantle added two free throws and Scruggs and Odom both hit layups to extend Xavier’s lead to 10-5, but a Chuck Harris three with 12:14 left in the first half cut Butler’s deficit to two. Adam Kunkel and Bo Hodges traded baskets and the teams entered the second media timeout with Xavier leading 12-10.
Out of the timeout, Butler’s offense started to click. Freshman Simas Lukosius knocked down four free throws while Harris and Hodges hit shots of their own. Butler led 18-16 before Xavier began attacking inside.
It became the Jack Nunge show for the Musketeers. The seven-footer scored the next six points for Xavier, followed by two baskets from Freemantle and a drive from Nate Johnson, while the defense locked in. Xavier forced seven straight misses for Butler and held them scoreless for over five minutes.
Chuck Harris drove to the basket and ended the Butler draught with 3:23 left in the first half, and Likosius hit a three to pull the Bulldogs within one less than a minute later. Nate Johnson answered with a jumper to extend the lead to 26-23.
Aaron Thompson hit a corner three to tie the game at 26 with 91 seconds remaining in the opening period. That score would hold into the break as both teams committed turnovers and missed shots down the stretch.
The teams shot a combined 21-62, including 3-20 from deep, through the first twenty minutes. Butler struggled to finish at the rim, hitting 5 of 12 layups, while Xavier failed to make a three in the half.
While the first half was a defensive affair, the second opened with a bang. Xavier and Butler combined for 25 points through the first five minutes of the second half as the teams went back and forth. Xavier started with a quick 7-2 run, followed by a 9-2 Butler run, followed by a 4-0 run to give Xavier a 39-38 lead heading into the first media timeout.
The Bulldogs’ offense continued to cook thanks to Chuck Harris. The sophomore scored 9 points in opening minutes of the second frame, opening the period 4-4 from the field, as Butler built a 44-41 lead with 12:57 left in the game. Simas Lukosius scored six straight to extend Butler’s lead to 52-47 with 9:08 to play.
The Musketeers hung tough, scoring six of the next eight to pull within one with 6:35 remaining. Nate Johnson added two free throws and Coly Jones finished a layup to put Xavier up 57-54 as the Musketeer student section erupted. Bryce Nze hit a shot to cut Butler’s deficit to one, but Simas Lukosius’s flagrant foul on an elbow after a defensive rebound gave Xavier two shots and the ball. Colby Jones hit one-of-two, and Paul Scruggs swished a fadeaway late in the shot clock to put Xavier up 60-56.
Nze and Harris each scored second-chance points for the Bulldogs, but a three from Freemantle and layup from Nunge put Xavier ahead 65-60 with 1:24 showing on the clock at Madison Square Garden.
It appeared that lead would be enough. The Musketeers got another stop and got to the line for two free throws with 40 seconds left, up 66-62. Scruggs missed both shots, but Colby Jones got the offensive rebound and got fouled. Jones missed both.
Harris got fouled at the other end and hit both. 66-64 Xavier lead.
Then, Xavier got called for a foul on the inbound attempt. Butler ball. Harris drove and tied the game at 66 with 24 seconds remaining.
Scruggs stormed down the court and took the ball to the basket. He finished the layup and drew the foul from Butler’s Harris, his fifth. The Xavier guard missed another free throw, but the Musketeers were up 68-66 with just eight ticks on the clock.
Scruggs then fouled Lukosius on the final Butler possession. It was the fifth foul for the fifth-year senior. Scruggs thought Xavier was up by three. It sent the Butler freshman to the line for two shots to tie the game.
Unfazed by the pressure. Lukosius sank both.
Colby Jones’s game-winning attempt came up short, and the teams were headed to overtime.
With Chuck Harris fouled out, overtime became Simas season. The freshman from Lithuania scored Butler’s first ten points in the extra frame and 12 straight for his team including the final two free throws in regulation. That gave Butler a 78-72 lead, their largest of the game. After a handful of free throws, Butler defeated Xavier 89-82.
“Proud of our guys for the resiliency,” said Butler coach Lavall Jordan after the game. “We all believed that it’s not over,” added Simas Lukosius.
Lukosius scored 27 points, a new career high. He hit four 3-pointers, more than Xavier’s team total of three.
Chuck Harris led all scorers with 29 points, tying his career high. Harris shouldered the load for Butler, hitting 12 of his 20 attempts. He made all ten of his shots from inside the arc.
Bryce Nze recorded a double-double with 15 points and rebounds.
Xavier shot 11-25 from the free throw line in the second half and overtime in the team’s worst free throw performance of the season. The three made 3-pointers matched the team’s previous low mark.
“It’s not on one person, it’s on us. It’s on us as a team, me included. I’m right at the forefront of that,” said Xavier head coach Travis Steele after the game. “I don’t know what happened tonight.” Xavier awaits Selection Sunday nervously.
Butler will play Providence at noon tomorrow in the Big East Tournament quarterfinals.