GUILFORD — For 16 minutes, Xavier’s Jackson Benigni had just three points and was struggling to get the ball.
But it was Benigni who threw up a three-pointer from 36 feet at the buzzer to give Xavier a wild 63-60 come-from-behind victory over previously undefeated Guilford Tuesday night in a Southern Connecticut Conference contest.
With the loss, Guilford’s 14-game winning streak came crashing to a halt. The Indians, ranked 8th in the GametimeCT.com poll, are now 14-1.
The Falcons, who trailed by 21 points at halftime, got the ball with 20 seconds remaining after Guilford’s Noah Rubino missed the second of two free throws. With fouls to give, the Indians were able to knock 16 seconds off the clock.
Xavier (10-6) looked to get the ball into the hands of Benigni (31 points) for a drive to the basket, but he was double teamed. However, he saw a little daylight and threw up a shot that went in before he was mobbed on the floor by his teammates.
“I took one dribble and pulled up when I saw the double team,” Benigni said. “I knew I couldn’t get through there, so I took the shot. I thought it looked straight, a little short, but it was good.”
“He can shoot from deep,” Xavier coach Mike Kohs said. “I’ve seen it a few times, but not necessarily in a game.”
It was a disappointing way for Guilford’s unbeaten season to come to a sudden end.
“We had a 21-point lead at half and didn’t close out the game,” Guilford coach Jeff DeMaio said. “The way we lost certainly hurts, but I don’t make any excuses. I tip my cap to them. They played a hell of a second half.”
Guilford raced out to a quick 13-2 lead as the Indians kept working the ball around the perimeter for open shots. That included a trio of three-pointers, two by Matt Donlan (23 points).
Xavier had trouble with Guilford’s size advantage on both sides of the floor for the remainder of the first half and couldn’t keep the Indians out of the paint. On the other end, the Falcons couldn’t convert shots from inside the lane as Guilford kept building the lead until it was 36-15 at the break.
Donlan ended the first half, outscoring Xavier himself with 17 points.
“I said at halftime I was disappointed (that we) didn’t move the ball better,” Kohs said. “We were stagnant against their zone and we seemed lethargic. We didn’t seem to play with enough energy.”
Xavier started picking up Guilford at three-quarter court towards the end of the first half.
“We had to do it, so we could create easier baskets,” Kohs said. “We had to pick up deeper to get the pace going.”
Things reversed themselves dramatically in the second half as Xavier scored more points in the third quarters (21) than it had in the opening half. With Benigni scoring 12 points in the quarter, the Falcons cut their deficit to just 10 points, 46-36.
With Xavier turning up the pressure on defense in the fourth quarter and Guilford turning the ball over much more than usual, the Falcons slowly cut into the lead with Benigni hitting a layup with five minutes to go in the game to tie it at 49-49.
“For a team like us that doesn’t turn the ball over too much, we had a lot of turnovers tonight,” DeMaio said. “The problem was turnovers led to points for them.”
A pair of free throws by Sam Dombroski and a trey by Donlan gave Guilford back a 54-49, but Benigni finished off an 11-5 run with a layup after an Indians turnover with 34 seconds remaining as the Falcons took the lead for the first time, 60-59.
Rubino then hit the first of the free throws before Benigni’s heroics.