Xavier is making a habit of reaching the round of 16.
Senior center Kenny Frease scored a career-high 25 points to go with 12 rebounds, and the Musketeers knocked off upset-minded Lehigh 70-58 Sunday night to advance to the regional semifinals of the NCAA tournament for the fourth time in five years.
Xavier was ranked as high as eighth in the country earlier this season, but a midseason bench-clearing brawl that resulted in player suspensions seemed to turn the season on a sour note. They lost their edge and had to battle to make the tournament.
But they seem to have rekindled their momentum.
”We ultimately knew we had talent, but for whatever reason things just weren’t clicking,” Frease said. ”We’re coming together at the right time. It feels real good to get back to the Sweet 16.”
Lehigh, which stunned No. 2 seed Duke on Friday, was looking to become the first 15 seed to make it to the tournament’s second weekend.
But the 7-foot Frease stood in the way.
He dominated in the paint, hitting 11 of 13 shots, and Tu Holloway was his normal productive self with 21 points as 10th-seeded Xavier (22-12) moved on to play No. 3 seed Baylor on Friday in the South Regional at Atlanta.
”Lehigh is a very good team, but they’re also small,” said Xavier coach Chris Mack. ”I’m sure they don’t face the type of size that Kenny presents. We just wanted to be able to get the ball to Kenny, and fortunately he was able to finish.”
Frease was quick to turn the praise to his teammates after what Mack called his best game as a Musketeer.
”My guards put me in great position,” Frease said. ”I wouldn’t have been able to score if it wasn’t for those guys putting me in good positions and finding me at the right time. It made my job pretty easy. All I had to do was turn and finish.”
Lehigh center Gabe Knutson, who gave up three inches and 55 pounds to Frease, said he tried the best he could to defend Xavier’s burly big man.
”I didn’t do as good of a job as I could have defending him, but he’s a tremendous player and he had a tremendous night,” Knutson said.
Lehigh’s shooting, on the other hand, wasn’t so tremendous – particularly in the second half with two separate stretches in which the team didn’t make a basket for more than 6 minutes.
The Mountain Hawks shot 5 of 34 (14.7 percent) from the field in the second half.
The Musketeers held C.J. McCollum, the nation’s fifth-leading scorer, to 14 points on 5-of-22 shooting and overcame a 15-point first-half deficit. He came in averaging 21.9 points per game and scored 30 in the win over Duke.
”I just wasn’t making shots,” McCollum said. ”I just missed some shots tonight, and offense is going to come and go. We still have to get stops on defense, and we didn’t do that tonight.”
Mackey McKnight had 20 points for Lehigh (27-7), which tied a Patriot League record for wins in a season.
The Musketeers won despite playing most of the game without their third-leading scorer, Dezmine Wells. He injured his right toe in the first half and did not return.
Mack said he will be reevaluated this week but is hopeful he can play against Baylor.
The Mountain Hawks started strong, opening a 35-20 lead behind 53 percent shooting and 14 first-half points from McKnight. But after McCollum picked up his second foul Xavier clawed back to cut the lead to 37-33 at halftime behind a 3-point buzzer-beater by Holloway.
The Mountain Hawks went more than 7 minutes without a field goal to start the second half – missing their first 10 shots from the field – and the Musketeers took advantage by going on a 14-3 spurt to take a 47-40 lead.
The Mountain Hawks fought back again, however, tying the game at 52. That’s when Xavier took over for good, closing with an 18-6 run.
Holloway, who had to change his jersey number in the second half from 52 to 24 after getting blood on it, led the charge.
He hit a 3-pointer with 6:58 remaining to give the Musketeers a 55-52 lead they never relinquished.
He scored 15 of his 21 points in the second half. That came two nights after he scored 17 of his 25 after halftime in a win over Notre Dame.
Holloway said getting back to the round of 16 showed Xavier’s resolve.
”Coach Mack was talking to us about how everyone’s taking shots at us around the country,” Holloway said. ”After going through so much, we’re still standing today in the last 16 teams. And it showed. It just shows the character.”