Xavier came into the night with their highest ever preseason ranking and a streak of 26 straight season opening victories behind them. However, with 12:14 remaining in the game, they were looking at their first deficit of the night against a Lehigh team that excelled at rallying after Xavier tired to put them away. In the end, X had too much Bluiett and Sumner for the Mountain Hawks and outlasted them to send the Cintas faithful home relieved if not a bit more stressed than they anticipated being.
Things got off to a very promising start for Xavier as Edmond Sumner sparked the offense early, racking up 11 points and an assist as X grabbed the lead by a score of 20-11 by the under-12 media timeout. Already, there had been less than crisp ball movement by X, which was a theme throughout the night and led to only 18 assists on 32 made baskets in the game.
Another theme that developed early on was the resilience of Lehigh, who came off the mat after falling down 16-4 out of the gate. As all comebacks are, this one was started with defense and Lehigh held Xavier scoreless for two and a half minutes at one point as they chipped into the lead. JP Macura singlehandedly kept the foot on the gas for X, slamming home a dunk before nailing a three, his only make of the night from deep, to try to re-open the lead for X. The Mountain Hawks were not content to fade from the game, though, and came back with another run of their own, again seeing Xavier go two minutes between baskets as a pair of baskets from Sumner and Bluiett gave X a double-digit lead once again heading into the final 8 minutes of the half.
Xavier even pushed the lead to 12 by the 6 minute mark before a sequence of made layup, X turnover, made three pointer, X turnover, made three pointer brought Lehigh right back within 4. The final four minutes of the first half would be hard fought as Lehigh brought the lead down to 2 on several occasions before baskets from Sean O’Mara, Sumner, and Quentin Goodin stretched it back to 8. A three pointer made with 5 seconds left would loom large, however, as Lehigh went into the locker room down just 5 and rightfully thinking that they could stay in the game in the second half.
In a game that is close at half time between a highly rated and a lesser esteemed foe, the first 4 minutes of the second half are when the underdog has to expect the best punch from their opponent. Lehigh may have come out geared up for X to throw a haymaker early in the second half, but it didn’t materialize. Instead, the Mountain Hawks scored the first couple of baskets and had Xavier’s lead down to 1 in what seemed like a surreal turn of events for X fans. An ugly start to the half saw X respond through O’Mara and a Macura three point play, restoring the cushion, but the Mountain Hawks had the feeling they could grab momentum again.
On any great team, there is the understanding the ball needs to be in the hands of a certain player when a big shot needs taken. For Xavier over the last couple of seasons, they had the luxury of being able to feed the hottest hand, sometimes Myles Davis, sometimes JP Macura, one night in Fifth Third Arena it was Dee Davis, one day against a Matt Carlino-inspired Marquette it was Remy Abell. Tonight it was Trevon Bluiett. When Lehigh nibbled the lead the lead back to 2 with 15 minutes left, Tre responded with a jumper of his own to keep Lehigh at bay for the time being.
With just over 12 minutes left, Xavier was looking at a deficit for the first time all season in a game that very few people would have expected them to trail in the second half. Once again, it was Bluiett who answered the bell with a big three, one of only four Xavier made on the night, to retake the lead for good. He followed that up with a pair of free throws and then, after the teams exchanged baskets again, a three point play to keep the lead at 4 with 9 minutes to go. JP Macura would add a three point play of his own less than a minute later as Xavier looked to finally be pulling away. At 7:08 Bluiett made a pair of free throws to push the lead to 10 points for the first time in the second half and, presumably, put the game to bed. As it turned out, Lehigh had one more push left in them.
A frankly despondency inducing 7-0 run from Lehigh followed and Xavier was right back in a game with 5:41 to play. Malcolm Bernard, Bluiett, and Sumner responded with a 6-0 of their own and with 3 minutes left, Xavier was up 9. Once again Lehigh clawed their way back in as a pair of Sumner free throws split two three point trips from the Mountain Hawks. Sumner would split his next trip to the line and reigning two-time Patriot League Player of the Year Tim Kempton would pour home 5 points in the span of 20 game seconds, again seeing Sumner sink a pair of free throws in between, before Sumner was called for a charge going to the basket to try to seal the win for X. Painful deja vu was unfolding in the minds of Xavier fans as Lehigh drew up the play to get them the buzzer beating miracle they needed. Unlike in the first half, their luck wasn’t in, despite two attempts, and JP Macura secured the final board and the win for X. In a sloppy, poorly executed high wire act in the second half, Xavier somehow escaped unscathed.