Big Jack Nunge becomes hero of Xavier’s comeback with a block that echoed through March Madness

GREENSBORO, NC — Xavier center Jack Nunge has waited six years for this moment. Not really. This is official. It’s not like he was standing in his driveway at 12, taller than any boy in the neighborhood, thinking that one day he would make the most important play in an NCAA tournament game. He enrolled as a freshman in Iowa in the fall of 2017, thinking he’d be attending March Madness soon.

He was either right or wrong, depending on how you want to define “soon”.

“You just have to take a second to absorb everything. I’m just grateful to be able to play in March,” Nunge told Sporting News. “This is the best tournament in the world, the best time of the year. And we will fight. We’re going to try to win every game we can and we’re going to try to make a run. It will take everything.”

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By the end of Friday’s first-round match of the Midwest Region NCAA tournament against 14-seeded Kennesaw State, every inch of Nunge’s 7-0 frame and more was required, down to the fingertips of his right hand. His block of a layup attempt by Kennesaw point guard Terrell Burden gave the Musketeers a 1-point lead with the last 6 seconds. The ball bounced off the glass, was briefly caught by one of Burden’s team-mates but was ripped loose by XU striker Jerome Hunter before Souley Boum was able to catch it and take a couple of free throws to see his side through.

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The final score was 72-67, almost an insult to how close it was.

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“We just had to play harder,” Hunter said. “They played harder than us. They were trying to punk us and stuff like that, so we just had to play harder to keep up with everything they were doing. In the end we made it.”

They were asked several times what head coach Sean Miller had said to them at half-time and each player admitted it had been loud and maybe not always nice, but what was lost in that discussion was how little it was the Xavier seemed to affect players .

Finishing second in both the Big East regular season and their tournament, they started this game with all the confidence that should have delivered.

It got lost somewhere, and no one in the dressing room could fully explain it, possibly because it required an admission of hubris. The Musketeers were leading 9-2 in less than 3 minutes, only 2 minutes later 18-9. From that moment until Nunge picked up his first block at 7:59 in the game against 6-8 forward Demod Robinson, XU was outplayed 52-35. In fact, this cancellation may have been just as important as the last one, as it was only the second time in over 6 minutes that his team had earned a stop. Burden missed a short jumper at 9:27 left and Hunter grabbed the rebound. KSU contributed to Xavier’s comeback when guard Kasen Jennings stepped onto the sidelines.

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WATCH: Xavier teammates have heated exchange

But the Nunge block was a signal to the Musketeers that they could make a serious comeback. The Owls only scored 6 points after that block.

“It’s March, man. You can’t take anything for granted,” Nunge said. “They wouldn’t give it to us so easily.

“The whole second half I felt like it was: chip gone, chip gone. It’s not going to be a home run game that’s going to get us back in the game. They’re 13 points ahead – that’s five or six possessions.”

When Nunge showed up in Iowa so long ago, his apparent ball handling skills seemed like a perfect fit for coach Fran McCaffery’s attacking strategy. He made 19 3-pointers as a 15-minute-per-game part-time starter in his freshman season. Everything would work out wonderfully. He switched the next year because of the excessive depth on frontcourt and to help him develop. Returning as a sophomore, he earned a starting job and played the first five games. Then came the injuries.

He tore his ACL in a game in late November. That kept him out for the remainder of the 2018/19 season. Towards the end of the 2020-21 season, he tore his meniscus while playing 16 minutes a game behind All-American Luka Garza and missed the Hawkeyes games in the 2021 edition of March Madness. He then switched to Xavier, where he 13.4 points and 7.4 rebounds for a team that appeared suspended from a tournament bid in mid-February but then lost five of their last six games, including a Big East Tournament opener against a Butler under-.500 team. This went into overtime, ending the Musketeers as a candidate at large.

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“I’m just fighting with these guys and trying to keep our season going,” Nunge told SN. “I love everyone in this dressing room and I don’t want it to end.”

Nunge was married last May to Gabrielle Orr, whom he met in Iowa when she was on the Hawkeyes volleyball team. Nunge’s father-in-law, Lorenzo Orr, played basketball for the USC Trojans for four years in the early 1990s and has his own sad tale of NCAA tournament heartbreak to share. His team was a No. 2 seed and led No. 7 Georgia Tech by 0.8 seconds in a 1992 second round game. Tech had an inbound pass on the left touchline and James Forrest charged up and caught it Inbound pass and turned to fire in a jumper that hit the buzzer and Trojans, 79-78.

“He has his own experiences,” Nunge said. “I’m just looking forward to making my own. Coach always talks about it: These games will stay with us for the rest of our lives. We definitely want to make the best of it.”

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