NEW YORK (AP) — After ascending into the AP Top 25 for the first time this season, No. 22 Xavier kept rolling on the road.
Jack Nunge had 23 points and 12 rebounds, and the Musketeers won their seventh straight game by holding off St. John’s 84-79 on Wednesday night.
The high-scoring Musketeers (11-3, 3-0 Big East) built an 18-point cushion midway through the second half before fending off a late comeback, setting up a showdown against No. 2 UConn at home Saturday. Souley Boum had 17 points, six assists and six rebounds, and Zach Freemantle added 14 points and nine boards.
“We held on for dear life, obviously,” said Sean Miller, in the first season of his second stint as Xavier coach. “We hung in there and were able to finish the game.”
David Jones had 19 points and 10 rebounds for the Red Storm (11-3, 1-2), who lost for the first time in nine games this season at Carnesecca Arena on campus.
Joel Soriano, who leads the nation with 11 double-doubles, added 14 points and eight rebounds. Montez Mathis also scored 14 for St. John’s, which won the previous three meetings with Xavier after dropping 12 in a row.
“We wanted to show St. John’s that we were no slouch,” Boum said. “That’s what we were locked in on.”
St. John’s twice trimmed the deficit to six late in the second half and then to five on a 3-pointer by Jones with 26 seconds left. After a Xavier turnover, the Red Storm had a chance to make it interesting at the end, but Jones and Posh Alexander missed 3s before the buzzer.
“That’s what it’s like playing on the road,” Boum said. “No team is going to give up on their home court when they’ve got their crowd behind them. So, we’ve just got to weather the storm and keep playing and know teams are going to go on runs, especially at home. So that’s what we did. We stayed together and we just handled the pressure and we took care of business.”
Boum, a primary ballhandler, committed only two turnovers while playing all 40 minutes against the Red Storm’s active, pesky defense. He made all eight of his free throws, too.
Xavier outrebounded St. John’s 48-36, leading to a 16-8 advantage in second-chance points. But the Musketeers were outscored 24-7 in points off turnovers.
“When they really want to turn up the pressure, it’s different,” Miller said. “I thought their pressure, again, started to wear on us.”
In a fast-paced game, Xavier consistently beat St. John’s to loose balls. The Musketeers went on a 16-0 spurt, capped by a 3-pointer from Boum, to open a 27-12 lead 7:01 in and took a 48-37 advantage into halftime.
“I thought we dug ourselves a hole in that first half,” St. John’s coach Mike Anderson said. “I thought the extra-effort plays went their way in the first half. In the second half, we were much better. Let’s give them credit. I thought we didn’t play great, but we fought until the end.”
Xavier: After winning the NIT last season, the experienced Musketeers have opened 3-0 in Big East play for the fourth time and first since 2017-18. All three nonconference losses came during a four-game span in November against ranked teams that were in the top 12 at the time: Indiana, Duke and Gonzaga.
St. John’s: After going 10-1 against a weak nonconference schedule, the Red Storm have dropped consecutive league games to Villanova and Xavier. There might not be a ton of opportunities for signature wins versus ranked Big East opponents this season that would catch the attention of the NCAA Tournament selection committee, so St. John’s would do well to take better advantage of the ones that remain — especially at home.
“Obviously in the Big East, it gets more intense, more physical,” Anderson said. “We have to continue to master the physicality of the game.”
St. John’s reserve Rafael Pinzon did not suit up because of an illness. The sophomore guard is averaging 6.1 points and 2.9 rebounds per game. He is 7 for 15 from 3-point range in his past five games.
Xavier: A challenging stretch that should provide a good measuring stick for a team that looks like a Big East contender. After hosting the undefeated Huskies (14-0), the Musketeers play at Villanova on Jan. 7 followed by home games against Creighton and Marquette.
“I definitely think UConn, if they’re not the best team in America, they’re right there on that top line,” Miller said. “We would have to play a great game on Saturday to have a chance to beat them.”
St. John’s: Plays at Hudson River rival Seton Hall (7-7, 0-3) on Saturday afternoon.