New York City- The weather is miserable. Train schedules had to be negotiated. None of it mattered. The excitement of walking into ‘The World’s Most Famous Arena’ superseded any obstacles. For the first time since that day, March 11, 2020, when our lives were put on hold, there was live Big East coverage. In person, with fans in attendance.
The first game on the Wednesday triple header featured Butler and Xavier. Eighth seeded Xavier swept the ninth seeded Bulldogs in their two meetings this season.
This first game on the return for many of us proved to be quite memorable. Butler outlasted Xavier 89-82in an overtime contest lasting nearly three hours. At any rate it’s great to be back.
The first five possessions:
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At the 17 minute mark it was 4-0 Xavier. From the early possessions Xavier was establishing a trend of getting inside by dribble penetration. Senior guard Paul Scruggs was able to get easy access into the lane, something the Butler defense needed to address.
The 12 minute media time out, Xavier held a 12-10 lead. Not a great sign for coach Travis Steele’s Musketeers. Butler was off to a slow start, missed some easy opportunities, yet trailed by a bucket.
Butler grabbed a lead then lost it. From the eight to four minute mark, Xavier went on an 8-0 run to grab a 24-18 lead. Bulldogs had trouble matching up with 6’9" Zach Freemantle and 7’ Jack Nunge. Freemantle showed the ability to step out and hit the mid range shot. Nunge was causing difficulty posting down low.
Xavier threatened to pull away but couldn’t as each time Butler would answer. The Bulldogs put on an 8-2 run of their own the final four minutes of the half. At the break:
Offensive efficiency: both teams at 81.
Nunge (8) and Freemantle (6) combined for 14 of Xavier’s 26 points. Sophomore guard Chuck Harris of Butler, scoring primarily inside the arc, led all scorers with 10.
First four minutes after the half, coaches agree, are crucial. Butler ‘won’ the first four 10-9.
The first half Butler’s difficulty matching up with Xavier’s ‘bigs’ was noted. Xavier was having its own problems handling Harris of Butler.
Butler coach LaVall Jordan also got a helping hand from Simas Lukosius. The 6’6" freshman was effective inside and on the perimeter.
Both teams battled back and forth. Neither could get a significant lead. The game would have 10 ties and 11 lead changes. As important as the first four minutes are, these last five would tell the story. Xavier had a 55-54 lead with five minutes remaining, in regulation.
Xavier attacked the paint the final twenty minutes. Regardless, it was a wide open three by Freemantle giving the Musketeers a five point lead with just over two minutes to play.
Xavier could have iced it in the final minute. A succession of misses from the charity stripe kept the Bulldogs alive.
Harris' penetration drew Butler even with 24 seconds remaining. Scruggs answered with a drive of his own and was fouled with 8 seconds left. He missed the free throw. Scruggs then fouled out on a reach-in at half court with 5.1 seconds left. Lukosius hit both free throws to tie. A last second mid-range shot by Xavier’s Colby Jones missed the mark. Overtime.
Lukosius started the extra session with an inside shot followed by a three pointer, giving Butler a five point lead. While the start built momentum for Butler it was evident Xavier would not go away. Free throw trouble continued to plague Xavier. In the final minute Butler held a six point lead. The Bulldogs protected it at the line to earn the victory.
Offensive efficiency: Butler 114, Xavier 105
Leading scorers: Butler -
Harris (29), Lukosius (27).
Xavier- Nunge (24), Scruggs (15)
Butler shot 44% (28%) from three). Xavier was 47% and 20% from three. While Butler hit 25 of 32 free throws for a 78% showing, the Musketeers were 13 of 29 for 45%.
Poor free throw shooting the final minutes in regulation cost Xavier the game. Each team had three players foul out.
"Important thing for us is rest. It’s a one game season, Madison Square Garden, Big East Tournament. Best place to be in March…We were getting shots we wanted (first half). We missed some layups, good looks from three. We didn't have to change much at the half. We just had to keep our composure. We got the shots we wanted. We knew this would be a fight. Everyone is playing to survive and advance at this point." - Butler coach LaVall Jordan
"Obviously thought our guys played hard. We were the better team for 39 minutes but couldn’t close the game. We missed free throws including five down the stretch. Our guys are very emotional in the end. We don’t know what our future (this season) will hold. I thought we played very well tonight, for 39 minutes…Free throws, we got to knock them in. Our guys work hard on free throws in practice, I don’t know what happened tonight." - Xavier coach Travis Steele
Butler is now 14-18 and will take on top seed Providence tomorrow in the quarterfinals. Xavier dropped to 18-14.