Edmond Sumner and Trevon Bluiett were just enough Friday night as Xavier slipped past Lehigh, 84-81, on the opening night of the 2016-17 college basketball season.
Bluiett led the way with 25 points and 11 rebounds and Sumner added 24 points and six assists as the Musketeers overcame Lehigh center Tim Kempton's 25-point, seven-rebound effort on 9-of-16 shooting. Xavier led at halftime, 48-43.
Kempton gave the XU big men problems all night on the defensive end.
Lehigh took its first lead, 58-57, on a corner three from Kyle Leufroy just before the under 12-minute media timeout of the second half.
Bluiett nailed a three immediately out of the timeout to put the Musketeers back in front. They didn't trail again.
Bluiett extended the lead two possessions later with a strong offensive rebound that turned into a pair of free throws. He had an and-one finish after an offensive rebound moments later. An and-one finish by Macura following an offensive board gave Xavier a 70-63 lead by the eight-minute mark.
Lehigh didn't go away. The final four minutes were disheartening for Xavier as the Musketeers spoiled a nine-point lead coming into the final media timeout with 3:53 left.
A 3-point play by Kempton with 19.9 seconds to play drew the Mountain Hawks within one possession and then a charge on Sumner gave them the ball back with 17.7 seconds. They hoisted two 3-point looks on their final possession, but both were heavily guarded and missed the mark as XU hung on for the win.
"Really disappointed with our last three or four minutes of the game," Mack said. "We have to learn like a lot of teams do. I guess I'd rather win and learn from it than lose and learn from it. Some of the mistakes that we made were inexcusable down the stretch and we have to correct those very quickly so that when we're in situations where we're in close games we're able to handle end game situations much better than we did tonight."
After only shooting two free throws in the first half, Xavier was in the double-bonus by the the seven-minute mark of the second half. The Musketeers' superior athleticism on the perimeter and strength inside gave Lehigh problems and allowed XU to outscore the Mountain Hawks 15-8 at the free throw line after intermission. Xavier finished the game 16-of-19 (84.2%) from the charity stripe. It was a welcomed sight for fans after watching their men go 17-for-33 (51.5%) in the exhibition against Ferris State.
There were other bright spots for Xavier. The offense was mostly effective without hitting threes (4-17 3PT). Sumner played the entire game without getting into foul trouble and Lehigh had no real answer for him when he attacked. Bluiett was a beast on the glass the entire game and really turned it on offensively when the team needed him most. O'Mara and RaShid Gaston were a combined 7-of-9 from the field for 15 points after going 1-for-8 with four points against Ferris State.
The defense isn't as much of a concern at this point. The Musketeers looked very similar in last year's opener against a much worse Miami (OH) team that they trailed with under eight minutes to play and gave up 72 points to. The core guys on this team are not plus defenders and it's never been their priority as players. They've always played like they have enough confidence in their offense to flip a switch and pull ahead when it's winning time. Mack and his staff did a good job of working that tendency out of them during the non-conference last year and had them playing with more urgency by midseason. I suspect they'll do a similar job this year.
However, the play of the big men and the lack of depth are issues that aren't going away. At least, not before they're going to have to play some important games.
Due to foul trouble and Malcolm Bernard rolling his ankle in the first half, the Musketeers had to switch from their man-to-man defense to a 1-3-1 zone during the first quarter. Mack said after the game that his staff didn't think the zone would be their best option defensively, but they had to protect some of their guys from foul trouble. The zone also makes it easier to play two big men at the same time, which Mack did a little bit in both halves.
"We couldn't afford to have anymore guys in foul trouble, we only have a few guys on the bench," Mack said. "And when we (went zone), they carved it. We may have to figure something else out here to win games."
The lack of depth means that the Musketeers are constantly one injury or one bad call away from being in scramble mode with their lineups, forced to make a decision between playing small or playing big. Mack said he'll base that decision off of the opponents' personnel, but it's clear that he'd rather not have his options limited. Against Ferris State, it made the Musketeers' offense choppy. On Friday night, it derailed a fast start that saw X build a 12-point lead before the first media timeout. Upsetting the lineup rotations looks like a sure-fire way to get this team out of its rhythm so far.
"The game flipped a little bit in the first half because of our foul trouble," Mack said. "We have to figure out as coaches what we can do to not be in that situation. It happened in our scrimmage, it happened in the exhibition game, and it happened in our home opener. It's no secret right now that we don't have a ton of depth, so we have to figure out a way to defend without fouling much better than we have."
As for the bigs, they looked better offensively and O'Mara, in particular, started the game playing well on that end. However, there's no way to sugar coat the fact that Kempton outproduced all three of Xavier's centers combined. He's really good, but he's also the starting center for a Patriot League team. Xavier can't get abused in the paint every game only to say the opponent was talented afterward. They have to find answers. Gaston has to be a factor. They all have to rebound and defend better.
"On the offensive end, they were much more confident," Mack said of his big men. "They needed to rebound the ball much better than they did. They had a huge challenge. Tim Kempton got the best of them. There's a reason he's on the Abdul-Jabbar list. He's one of the best bigs in the country and he showed it tonight. He won't be our (last) challenge. We have to be a little bit better defensively on a guy like that then we were. At times, we did a really good job and then it would be bucket, bucket, bucket… and that can't happen. Awareness, readiness, toughness, ball-pressure… all those things have to be better."
If O'Mara and Gaston don't get it going, freshman Tyrique Jones might be coming for their minutes. He didn't attempt a shot and he only had one rebound in his eight minutes Friday night, but he was disruptive on the offensive glass with his strength and leaping ability, keeping two offensive rebounds alive for Macura and Bluiett that led to and-one opportunities at key moments in the second half. He has the most upside out of the big men on the roster and he's still improving rapidly each week.
"Tyrique gave us great energy," Mack said. "He did his job. He didn't necessarily produce a lot on the stat sheet, but for going up against a big-time player in Kempton, I thought he gave great energy, he rebounded, he defended… he's going to be a really good player for us."
A win is a win. Lehigh is a good team. And Xavier doesn't need to apologize for Friday night.
But there are some questions going forward.