For the fourth time in five years, the Xavier Musketeers are advancing to the Sweet 16. Getting there last night involved beating a very game #15 Lehigh Mountain Hawks squad. It also involved the ebb and flow of Xavier basketball that most of us have come to expect over the last three months.
While the 84-50 win that Florida ripped off against an overmatched Norfolk St was probably out of the question, Xavier fans probably came in to Sunday feeling pretty comfortable against the Patriot League runner up. All the talk of 27 wins aside, Lehigh wasn't exactly a powerhouse this year. Of course, the Musketeers promptly came out and fell behind. A 9-4 deficit at the first media timeout had quickly expanded to 26-14 with ten minutes to play in the first half. For the umpteenth time this year, Xavier had come out flat.
The only reason that Xavier wasn't even farther behind at that point was the Herculean effort of the smallest player on the roster, Dee Davis. Davis came into the game shooting an astoundingly poor 26% from behind the arc. That fact didn't keep him from burying his first two attempts in this particular game though. At a time where no one else but Kenny Frease was doing anything, Davis provided an instant spark. What Davis always brings is lockdown defense, and last night was no exception. Former Glenoak HS star CJ McCollum was never able to get into a rhythm as Dee harried him into two charges and only one field goal in the first half.
All of Davis' efforts didn't keep Xavier from going down 31-16 with six minutes to play in the first half. Lehigh was only 24 minutes from becoming the first #15 seed to make the second weekend of the tournament. Almost as inevitable as Xavier's slow start, though, was the lightning quick comeback. Starting with a Kenny Frease layup with 4:13, the Musketeers closed the half on a 17-6 run. Three pointers from Mark Lyons and the irrepressible Tu Holloway in the last minute brought Xavier within four and completely changed the narrative of the game entering the second half.
Xavier came out of the locker room just as hot as they had entered it, coming out 14-3 to extend the run to 31-9 and their lead to 47-40. Kenny Frease was dominating Gabe Knutson inside and the suddenly increased pace was giving Tu Holloway room to carve apart the Lehigh defense. Xavier's defense, on the other hand, locked down. The Mountain Hawks shot 63% in the first half, but went until 12:44 to play in the game before making a field goal in the second half.
At that point, Xavier led 47-42 and was in prime position to run away and hide. Of course, they didn't. Part of that was a sudden reluctance to simply feed Kenny Frease. Frease was in the midst of the best game of his career, finishing with 26/12/0 on 11-13 from floor. But, for nearly 13 minute stretch during the middle of the second half, Frease scored only one field goal. As Kenny was choked of supply, the Mountain Hawks crept back into the game.
At the 8:17 mark, A CJ McCollum jumper tied the game at 52 and completely robbed Xavier of any momentum that they had accumulated. Whatever Coach Mack said at the following media timeout worked though, because the Musketeers responded with an 8-0 run to begin the arduous process of finally killing off the crowd favorite. By the time the run ended, all Xavier had to do was execute at the line to punch their ticket to Atlanta. They did, and the team that so many people wrote off just three short weeks ago was on their way back to the Sweet 16.
-Can Xavier stop CJ McCollum? It only took watching the Musketeer guards destroy the same guy who dropped 30/6/6 on Duke to realize how tough the Xavier backcourt really is. McCollum finished with 14/8/0 on 5-22 from the floor and 0-6 from deep and was not able to ever establish any sort of scoring rhythm.
-What pace should the Muskies work for? Fast, apparently. During the 31-9 run that swung the game toward Xavier and effectively decided the contest, the Musketeers ran. Lehigh deserves a good deal of credit for recognizing that Xavier was better suited run than even they were and trying to slow the pace. For long stretches of the game, the Mountain Hawks were successful. Long stretches of the game are not the entire game though, and when Xavier hit the gas they ran with aplomb.
-Can Xavier dominate the boards? A six rebound margin (39-33) really isn't much, and Xavier did allow 13 offensive rebounds. That said, Lehigh didn't shoot well enough to capitalize on second chances, so the rebounds didn't hurt that much.
What I liked/didn't like:
- I've not been shy in calling out Justin Martin this year, but his effort last night deserves attention of a different type. His 2/7/1 line doesn't look great, but the rebounds and his energy were absolutely crucial early in the game.
- Tu Holloway simply defies description now. 21/2/2 and 4-8 from behind the arc made up for Dez Wells going missing.
- The news on Wells isn't good. Toes are small, but injuring them is excruciating. The freshman managed only eight minutes last night and will not be at 100% Friday, no matter what he says.
- Griffin McKenzie played a minute. I don't know what that means, but it seems noteworthy if only for its oddity.
- Mark Lyons struggled mightily from the floor, going 1-7 on shots that weren't game ending dunks. Xavier will need every weapong in the arsenal to take down the Baylor Bears, so Mark needs to get things figured out by Friday.
- Jeff Robinson was Bad Jeff last night. Only his eight rebounds make his 0-4 from the floor and countless mental errors somewhat palatable.
- Sweet 16!
Next Game: #3 Baylor on Friday