GREENSBORO, N.C. — The loss brought tears to the eyes of a suddenly emotional Amir Abdur-Rahim.

Tears of joy.

A historic victory was at hand – and just like that it was gone. Kennesaw State failed to hold a 13-point second-half lead and lost to Xavier 72-67 in a dramatic NCAA Tournament first-round game at the Greensboro Coliseum on Friday.

Afterward, the Kennesaw State head coach was asked, by a representative of the student newspaper, whether this was the start of something big for the program.

“With all due respect, the beginning was four years ago,” Abdur-Rahim said. “We are here today because (emotional long pause). … These are tears of joy because we made a commitment to this university. We made a commitment to these guys sitting next to me that we were going to show up every day for. When you get to a place like this – these are tears of joy – because it takes a special group of people to commit to something and stay and see that vision through. The beginning was four years ago. You better believe this is our standard. This is our expectation, and we will be back.”

Senior point guard Terrell Burden put his hand on Abdur-Rahim’s shoulder as a sign of comfort.

Abdur-Rahim took over the program four years ago and went 1-28 in his first season. Now, as a No. 14 seed, the Owls took the No. 3 seed to the brink of elimination, in the school’s first trip to the NCAA Tournament. Kennesaw State was on the verge of becoming the latest team to put the Madness in March after No. 15-seed Princeton and No. 13-seed Furman pulled upsets Thursday.

Instead, Xavier will move on.

Trailing 68-67, Burden had a layup blocked at the rim by Xavier’s Jack Nunge in the closing seconds. Kennesaw State’s dreams came to an abrupt end. Xavier made four free throws for the final margin.

Nunge said Xavier expected Kennesaw State to spread the floor and give Burden a chance to use his quickness to get to the basket.

“It was definitely designed that way,” Burden said of the key play. “We didn’t get the result we wanted, but it was a great play by him to meet me at the rim. Although it didn’t end the way I wanted it to end, it was a learning experience for me. I take it as an opportunity for next time because there is going to be another moment where I can get another chance to drive to the paint.

“I wanted to win, but this is part of the learning experience that not only I have to go through, but we as a program have to go through to sustain wins like this. It might hurt as of right now, (but) we got to let it go. We are blessed to be in this position. We’ve said it a couple times that we are going to be back. We stand on that. We stand firm on that.”

Chris Youngblood and Burden each scored 14 points to lead Kennesaw State, which finished 26-9. Spencer Rodgers added 10 points.

Jerome Hunter scored a career-high 24 points to lead Xavier, which improved to 26-9 and advances to the second round. It will face Pitt on Sunday. Souley Boum added 17 points, including the last four free throws. Xavier’s starters accounted for all but one of its points.

Kennesaw State pushed its lead to 13 points early in the second half, 51-38, with a run of eight consecutive points, capped by a put-back by Rodgers. The basket forced Xavier to call a timeout with 15:46 remaining. Kennesaw State kept the double-digit lead, toggling between 11 and 13 points, for the next six minutes. Boum and Adam Kunkel had a heated exchange during a timeout.

The Owls ended the game going 2-for-15 from the field.

Xavier finally cut its deficit to less than double digits, 61-53, with 8:27 remaining. It was the start of a 15-2 run as Xavier tied the score. Xavier pulled even, 61-61, with 5:28 remaining.

The lead was back in Xavier’s hands on their next possession as Nunge made a free throw with 4:47 left for a 62-61 advantage. A 17-2 run ended with 4:15 remaining and a 63-61 advantage.

Kennesaw State tied the score with a pair of free throws by Brandon Stroud. After a Nunge free throw gave Xavier the lead back, Demond Robinson made a jumper with 2:01 left that gave Kennesaw State another lead, at 65-64. Kennesaw State answered a Kunkel 3-pointer, only the second 3-pointer on 12 attempts for Xavier. Kasen Jennings’ basket tied the score at 67-67 with a minute remaining.

After Burden missed a driving layup, Xavier’s Colby Jones made one of two free throws with 18.3 seconds remaining for a 68-67 lead. Kennesaw State brought the ball up court and called a timeout with 13.6 seconds left, setting up Burden’s final try.

“I want to give Kennesaw State a lot of credit,” Xavier coach Sean Miller said. “It was not just that we were off or didn’t play well. They had a lot to do with us not playing well. … This was as hard of a hard-fought victory that we’ve had this year.”

Kennesaw State took a 43-36 lead into halftime. The Owls used two separate 14-3 runs to take the advantage, including one to end the first half.

After trailing by nine points early in the game, as Xavier exploited its size advantage, Kennesaw State settled down. Xavier had 14 of its first 22 points in the paint. It didn’t score in the paint the rest of the half.

It soon became evident that the moment was not too big for these Owls.

Kennesaw State took its first lead of the game, 25-23, with 9:23 remaining in the first half with the first of their 14-3 runs. Chris Youngblood and Simeon Cottle made back-to-back 3-pointers to tie the score and force a Xavier timeout. Spencer Rodgers then gave the Owls the lead with a layup.

After Xavier took a four-point lead, 33-29, Kennesaw State ended the half with another 14-3 run that had Xavier in disarray. Rodgers made a deep 3-pointer as the shot clock was about to expire to give Kennesaw State a seven-point lead, 41-34, with 1:38 remaining in the half.

Kennesaw State guard Terrell Burden (1) reacts as time expires as Xavier guard Adam Kunkel (5) celebrates during the first round of the NCAA Tournament at the Greensboro Coliseum, Friday, March 17, 2023, in Greensboro, NC. Kennesaw State lost 72-67 against Xavier. Jason Getz /

Credit: Jason Getz /

icon to expand image

Credit: Jason Getz /