NEW YORK — If this was the last NIT championship game at Madison Square Garden, it certainly was a thriller.
Especially for Xavier.
Jack Nunge made the go-ahead basket with 3.1 seconds left and the Musketeers won their first NIT crown in 64 years Thursday night, rallying for a 73-72 victory over Texas A&M.
Colby Jones scored 21 points for Xavier (23-13) and was selected the tournament’s most outstanding player. Dwon Odom added 18, and Nunge had 15 points and 11 rebounds to help the Musketeers erase an eight-point halftime deficit under interim coach Jonas Hayes.
“I can’t say enough about our guys,” Hayes said. “That’s what Xavier basketball is.”
It was the final National Invitation Tournament title game at Madison Square Garden for at least a few years — breaking a college basketball tradition that dates to 1938.
MSG won’t host the semifinals and finals anymore in 2023 and 2024, the NIT announced this week, saying a bid process has begun to find new sites for those years. Nothing has been decided about 2025 and beyond.
“Madison Square Garden is a special court,” Nunge said. “Everybody knows the feel when you’re playing out there and you just want to give it your all — all the history that’s there. I’m just grateful to be part of this team and have our names in the record books.”
Quenton Jackson scored 23 points for the Aggies (27-13), left out of the NCAA Tournament despite reaching the SEC final, where they lost to Tennessee. It was a surprising snub by the selection committee that drew criticism from Texas A&M coach Buzz Williams and others.
After getting over their disappointment, the Aggies nearly took the consolation prize.
“It’s been great. One of the better experiences I’ve had playing basketball,” Jackson said. “We’ve been through a lot this year. A lot of ups, a lot of downs, but through it all I think we’ve all learned just how to persevere and remain resilient through everything.”
In a championship game with 17 lead changes, Adam Kunkel made one of two free throws to give second-seeded Xavier a 71-70 advantage with 1:28 left.
Jackson was fouled by Odom on a drive and sank both free throws to put the top-seeded Aggies in front with 27 seconds remaining.
Texas A&M blocked a shot out of bounds on the other end, and Xavier inbounded from the baseline. Jones found Nunge inside and he wheeled into the lane and banked in a one-handed turnaround shot that put Xavier ahead 73-72.
“Ever since Jonas has taken over as head coach, we haven’t really had any out-of-bounds plays,” Nunge said. “I tried to call — look at the bench and call a simple one everybody knows, and Colby looked at me and said he was going to throw me the ball, and I was fortunate enough to knock down the shot.”
After a timeout by the Aggies, they still had a chance to win. Tyrece Radford dribbled up the left side and tossed up a runner from the 3-point line that rimmed out.
“Unbelievable game,” said Hayes, his NIT championship T-shirt soaked. “I thought our guys met the challenge. I’m fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to lead these guys for a couple weeks, and these guys deserve the amount of success they have.”
Nunge grabbed the rebound at the buzzer to seal Xavier’s second NIT championship. The other one came in 1958.
After a disappointing flop in the Big East this season, the Musketeers took off in the NIT despite losing senior guard Paul Scruggs to a torn knee ligament.
“What has happened in their program over the last two weeks is historical and any AD that has a job opening should hire the undefeated head coach at Xavier, Coach Hayes,” Williams said.
Hayes took over when head coach Travis Steele was fired following Xavier’s victory over Cleveland State in the first round of the NIT.
Sean Miller, the former Arizona coach, was hired for his second stint at Xavier and will now take charge of the program. A smiling Miller, who also coached the Musketeers from 2004-09, watched from the MSG stands Thursday night.
Radford finished with 15 points and Hassan Diarra, a New York City native, added 12 for the Aggies.
Texas A&M had a 10-point lead, its largest of the night, late in the first half.
Jackson and Diarra combined for 22 points to give the Aggies a 40-32 edge at the break. Texas A&M shot 14 for 25 from the field.
Diarra came off the bench to spark a 18-10 surge over the final six minutes of the first half. His layup evened it 26-all and he capped a 7-0 spurt with a 3-pointer that extended the Aggies’ lead to 31-26.
Jackson then took advantage of a Xavier turnover and ignited another 7-0 run with a 3-pointer and a pair of free throws before Radford tipped in Jackson’s miss to make it 40-30.
IN THE GARDEN
Attendance was 3,551 as Xavier became the 83rd NIT champion crowned at Madison Square Garden.
The event has been played annually at MSG since its inception in 1938. Last year was an exception, when the whole tournament was held in North Texas with a reduced field because of the coronavirus pandemic that also forced cancellation of the 2020 edition.