Kennesaw State made their first trip to the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament and the 14th-seeded Owls almost became the latest team to pull off an upset as a double-digit seed after going up 13 in the second half, but third-seed Xavier sank a free throw with 16 seconds left to break a tie-game and escape with a 72-67 victory on Friday afternoon at the Greensboro Coliseum in the First Round of the NCAA Tournament. The Owls, hoping to claim a win in their first-ever appearance in the NCAAs, finish the year at 26-9, which is 12 more wins than the previous school record for victories in a season.
In front of a loud and large contingent of Owl fans that made the five-hour trip up north, KSU fell behind early 7-0 and 14-5, as Xavier’s Jermone Hunter scored nine points in the first four minutes of the game. He added a pair of dunks to make the score 20-11 with 14:16 to play. The Owls then stepped up on defense, holding him to a pair of free throws the rest of the half. KSU also found its shot on offense, exploding for a 14-3 run over the next four minutes. Back-to-back three-pointers from Chris Youngblood and Simeon Cottle, along with a Spencer Rodgers layup gave the Owls their first lead of the afternoon at 25-23. Xavier answered back and went up 33-29 but were then held to just three points over the final six minutes of the half. Another 14-3 run from KSU ended the first half, with a pair of Terrell Burden free throws making it a 43-36 halftime lead for the Owls.
After Xavier opened with a Hunter jumper, the Owls reeled off eight straight points to go up 51-38 with 15:50 to play. It was still a 13-point lead, 61-48, when Burden drove to the lane and scored with 9:57 left on the clock. Unfortunately for the Owls, that was their last field goal for the next eight minutes. Xavier meanwhile found its groove on offense, scoring 15 unanswered for a 63-61 lead with 4:14 to play. From there it was a tight battle the rest of the way, with the lead changing hands three times. Demond Robinson drained a long jumper to put KSU up 65-64, while Xavier answered with a long trey on the other end for a two-point advantage. Kasen Jennings managed to find enough room in the lane and his floater just rolled in off the rim to knot the game at 67-67.
The Owls nearly had the chance to take the last shot or go to overtime, but Youngblood was instead whistled for his fifth foul on a putback attempt by the Musketeers. Xavier made one-of-two at the line for a 68-67 lead, and on the other end Burden got free to the basket but his shot was blocked off the backboard. XU would make four-of-four at the line in the final seconds to seal the win.
After the Owls went up 61-48, they were held to just 2-of-15 shooting the rest of the game, and 31.3% for the half after hitting 53.2% of their shots in the opening 20 minutes. KSU was also 0-of-7 from three-point range after halftime after making 5-of-12 in the first half.
-Xavier held a big advantage at the free throw line, as the Musketeers were awarded 30 attempts and hit 22 for 73.3%. KSU meanwhile was 8-of-13 (61.5%).
-The Owls bench turned in strong performances, outscoring Xavier by a 19-1 margin. Nine players overall scored for KSU in the contest.
-Top scorers for KSU were Burden and Youngblood with 14 each, while Rodgers added 10 in his last game as an Owl. Also playing in his last game for the Black and Gold was Alex Peterson who scored six points.
-KSU did win the battle of the boards, with Robinson leading the way with eight.
-Six Owls set new school records for most games played in at KSU by making their 35th appearance of the season. Burden and Youngblood finished with 35 starts, also new single season records for the Owls.