Terrell Burden got a shoulder past his defender and pushed into the paint, locking in on the rim for a chance to move Kennesaw State within reach of its first-ever NCAA Tournament win.
Instead, Xavier's Jack Nunge descended on him to make the play that capped the Musketeers' late defensive surge — and saved their season.
Nunge blocked Burden's driving attempt at a go-ahead layup in the final seconds, and Xavier dug out of a 13-point hole against surprising Kennesaw State to escape with a 72-67 victory in Friday's first round.
The 7-footer's block was part of the reason the Owls shot 2-for-15 over the final 9 1/2 minutes, reversing the momentum in a game that had often left third-seeded Xavier (26-9) looking befuddled.
“We didn't really change much, and that's oftentimes the story," said coach Sean Miller, back for his second stint with the Musketeers. “We just did what we do better.”
Souley Boum hit four clinching free throws in the final 2.6 seconds for the Musketeers, who ran off 15 unanswered points as part of a game-ending 24-6 run. That was enough to turn away the 14th-seeded Owls (26-9) in the program's first-ever March Madness game.
Xavier moves on to face either Iowa State or Pittsburgh on Sunday in the Midwest Region.
Xavier led 68-67 when Burden — who'd been successful all day with dribble penetration — made his move into the paint. But Nunge rotated over and swatted the ball into the backboard.
“In the timeout, we were supposed to switch everything,” Nunge said, adding: “He's a really good driver at getting to the rim and I just came over and blocked it.”
Burden said everything with the play ran as designed until Nunge's arrival.
“It was a great play by him to meet me at the rim,” Burden said.
The ball eventually made its way to Boum, who hit two free throws with 2.6 seconds left for a 70-67 lead. The Owls had a chance to set up a 3-pointer for the tie, but that desperate play ended when Spencer Rodgers' right foot landed on the sideline as he caught the inbound pass.
Jerome Hunter scored a career-best 24 points to lead the Musketeers, while Boum had 17. Nunge had 10 points, 11 rebounds, two steals and two blocks.
Burden and Chris Youngblood each scored 14 points to lead Kennesaw State, which appeared on the verge of a signature March moment, playing with an aggressive edge while backed by vocal pockets of fans. At one point, the 5-10 Burden got Nunge on a switch, pulled him outside and blew past him for a layup and a 61-48 lead.
But that's when Xavier started its desperate push back — and Nunge was ready when Burden challenged him again.
“We did some things early on both ends of the court that helped build that 13-point lead,” Kennesaw State coach Amir Abdur-Rahim said. “But if anybody in that building thought that was going to be how the game stayed, you hadn't watched much basketball in March — and you probably haven't watched much basketball in general.”
Kennesaw State: The Owls earned their first bid with a rapid climb, improving from a 1-28 season in Abdur-Rahim’s first year. And before this year, the dual-campus Georgia school with nearly 43,000 students had never had a winning record in its Division I era, which began in the 2005-06 season. It was a memorable season that came oh-so-close to adding a historic win.
Xavier: Five years ago, the Musketeers had won 29 games and reached the NCAA Tournament for the 15th time in 17 seasons, a stretch that began under Miller. But they hadn't made it since. Miller returned this season for his second stint at Xavier after 12 years at Arizona and immediately ended that five-year drought. It's also his first trip to the NCAAs since 2018 with the Wildcats.
Boum and teammate Adam Kunkel traded words on the court — with Boum giving Kunkel a bump — leading into a late timeout. They continued jawing across the bench until teammates stepped in.
Boum and Kunkel both shrugged it off, with Kunkel calling it “just the heat of the game.”
“We've got to be on point with stuff, and if we get a little emotional, it's nothing personal,” Boum said, adding they “hugged it out.”
After the game, Abdur-Rahim gathered his team for a moment at midcourt before the Owls headed for the locker room while waving to their boisterous fans.
“I am so proud of this group: who they've become, what they're about, but more importantly, how they respond to adversity, and even how they respond to success," he said during his news conference, which at one point had him fighting back tears.
"That was a fun basketball game out there today, man. It gets no better than that.”
Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at https://twitter.com/aaronbeardap
AP March Madness coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness and bracket: https://apnews.com/hub/ncaa-mens-bracket and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-basketball-poll and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25