Xavier gets its revenge, knocks off No. 19 Ohio State in thriller

Adam Jardy
The Columbus Dispatch

CINCINNATI – The glass windows overlooking the court at the Cintas Center bear the slogan of the Musketeers: ALL FOR ONE.

Thursday night, with No. 19 Ohio State in town, that’s not what they were there for. It was revenge the Xavier faithful were on hand for, a chance to stick it to the bigger state school up the road.

In the first on-campus meeting between the schools since a New Year’s Eve game at Xavier during the Great Depression (1934), Xavier (3-0) took the lead on the opening possession, pushed it to double figures and held off a late charge to hand the Buckeyes (2-1) their first loss of the season.

The final from the Cintas Center: Xavier 71, Ohio State 65.

Ohio State Buckeyes forward E.J. Liddell (32) blocks a shot by Xavier Musketeers guard Paul Scruggs (1) in the first half of the NCAA basketball game between the Xavier Musketeers and the Ohio State Buckeyes at the Cintas Center in Cincinnati on Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021.

"I thought it was a tremendous environment," Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann said. "True road games are essential for our game, this time of year. I thought it was a phenomenal environment. Give their team, their fans, credit for a hard-fought win. Their older guys made some really important plays. I thought our younger guys did some things, clawed back into it, gave ourselves a chance. We just have to be better in a couple areas for sure."

Ohio State, which never led, trailed by 11 points near the midpoint of the second half and was still down 54-44 with 8:10 left before a Zed Key right-handed hook shot helped the Buckeyes start to chip away. Throwing a 2-3 zone at the Musketeers, Ohio State started to rack up stops as the offense inched closer. The Buckeyes were within 54-49 with 5:13 left when Gene Brown III, after skying for an offensive rebound, was pulled to the ground and smacked the back of his head on the court.

A foul was called and, after getting some attention on the court, Brown was helped to the bench. Unable to take the free throws, Xavier sent Key to the line, where he missed the front end of the one-and-one. Xavier’s Nate Johnson answered with a swished 3-pointer from the left corner, pushing the Ohio State deficit back to eight points with 4:56 to play.

Ohio State responded with Meechie Johnson Jr., who hit a 3-pointer and scored on a drive to the basket to force Xavier to call timeout with its lead cut to 57-54. The Musketeers got the ball to Iowa transfer Jack Nunge, who was wide open on a pick-and-roll, and he finished to push it back to a two-possession game.

It would be enough, but there would be a final exclamation point. With Ohio State within 65-62 and 41.2 seconds left, Xavier called timeout and set up a play against the zone defense Ohio State had flashed throughout the game. It resulted in a monster dunk from a driving Paul Scruggs, who hammered it home as the sellout crowd erupted.

"They just out-toughed us on a lot of plays," Johnson said. "Rebounding, they just wanted it more at times. That second half, we adjusted. It wasn’t talent, we just didn’t get a stop consistently. That hurt us."

Xavier won the opening tip, pushed the ball up the court and got a driving layup from Paul Scruggs to open the scoring and set off a confetti party in the student section, some of whom had been in line since before 9 a.m. E.J. Liddell missed from the paint on the next possession, and a moment later Johnson finished a drive with a behind-the-back pass to Dieonte Miles for an easy bucket.

Nothing would come easily for Ohio State at the other end, where Xavier’s length and size affected the Buckeyes both at the rim and around the perimeter. By the half, Ohio State would have nine turnovers, and on their way to that it missed eight of its first nine shots to feed some extra momentum to the crowd.

The Buckeyes would pull within one point just once during the half, when Meechie Johnson fed Zed Key to make the score 10-9. Key answered an Adam Kunkel 3-pointer with a left-handed hook shot in the paint, but Down Odom drove around Johnson for a layup to push the Xavier lead back to 15-11.

It was the only time during the half that the Buckeyes would score on consecutive possessions, and a pair of Kyle Young free throws with 3.7 seconds left set the score at a 35-26 Xavier lead. The Musketeers closed the half in style, scoring on three straight possessions leading into Young’s drive and free throws to briefly push their lead to 11 points. Liddell had a career-high six blocks by halftime but only four points on 2-of-7 shooting.

The student section was in full voice well before the rest of the arena filled up. A printed “Smack Board” distributed to each seat highlighted Ohio State guard Jimmy Sotos and graduate student manager Greg Oden as key Buckeyes to heckle, and each time Sotos walked toward that end of the court during warmups he was treated to a cacophony of boos.

The last meeting between the teams hovered in the air. Before the game, Xavier aired a video that showed Ron Lewis’ famous shot that sent the 2007 NCAA Tournament game between these two teams into overtime, where the Buckeyes pulled away.

Ohio State was playing its first game without Justice Sueing, who was announced earlier in the day to be out for an extended period of time with an abdominal injury.

ajardy@dispatch.com

@AdamJardy