CINCINNATI -- It was an ugly basketball game at times, but No. 7 Xavier held off Lehigh in an 84-81 season-opening victory Friday at Cintas Center in front of 10,250 fans.
Defensive sloppiness plagued a Musketeers team that nearly jeopardized a lead down the stretch.
After Tim Kempton’s free-throw made it a 3-point game, an offensive foul by Xavier’s Edmond Sumner ensured one last Mountain Hawks possession with 18 seconds to go.
Lehigh missed a screen and failed to get the shot it wanted, so Kahron Ross forced an off-kilter 3-pointer. Austin Price rebounded and fired another shot that fell short, and the Musketeers survived.
Xavier junior Trevon Bluiett finished with a career-high 25 points and a team-best 11 rebounds, while Sumner chipped in a career-best 24 points. J.P. Macura added 13 points and Sean O’Mara tied a career-high with 10 points.
Defensive lapses will haunt the team
Coach Chris Mack has long preached defensive toughness, so careless play by the Musketeers -- especially in the last three to four minutes -- exposed a troubling early-season liability. What’s more, veteran players made mistakes with the game on the line.
Whether it was a poor pass by Macura, an ill-advised foul by Bluiett or Sumner’s charge, Mack called the gaffes "inexcusable."
"I mean, you’ve been on the college floor now your third year. Our better players and guys that aren’t playing out of position, they may be fatigued because they play a lot of minutes. But there can’t be any mental fatigue in executing the end of the game," Mack said.
“It’s one thing if you miss your free throws but we made our free throws in the second half. We just dribbled the ball away and gave them situations that they shouldn’t have been in down the stretch.”
Traditionally Mack’s teams have improved defensively as seasons have progressed. Only time will tell if the Musketeers can shore up improvements before Monday’s game against Buffalo.
Till depth do us part
For most teams, a player’s injury in a season opener is bad news. For Xavier, it’s really bad news.
Why? Because the team has just nine healthy scholarship players, including walk-on turned scholarship player Tim Stainbrook. Kaiser Gates is expected to be out for a month after undergoing minor knee surgery and Myles Davis remains indefinitely suspended after resolving legal matters relating to an ex-girlfriend.
So when Malcolm Bernard sustained a right ankle ailment late in the first half, it was a legitimate concern. Bernard turned out to be fine and even started the second half, but his scare highlighted the precarious ledge the Musketeers walk when it comes to able bodies.
"It’s not algebra. You don’t have to look down (the bench). There’s not 16 different options. It’s like two or three," Mack said. "And so our challenge is: Do we want to go big where we play Sean (O’Mara) and RaShid (Gaston) together, Tyrique (Jones) and Sean together? Or do we want to go smaller? And if Malcolm twists his ankle, we have four scholarship guys between those four guard positions. And so it makes it a little bit difficult."
Foul trouble also affected the Musketeers' options. The team turned to its 1-3-1 zone to keep players from amassing more fouls, which preserved bodies but didn’t serve as a lockdown function against Lehigh’s scorers.
Until Gates returns, the onus is on Xavier to defend without fouling.
Different day, better frontcourt
Xavier’s frontcourt struggled in an exhibition game against Division II Ferris State but played better against Lehigh. One reason was a more aggressive O’Mara.
It’s no secret that the 6-foot-10-inch junior is angling for a breakout season after playing behind former teammates Matt Stainbrook, Jalen Reynolds and James Farr. After going scoreless in the exhibition, he wasted little time showing his mettle against the Mountain Hawks.
The fruits of his offseason labors -- reshaping his body and training with John Lucas -- showed most in his eight points in 13 first-half minutes. Mack made a beeline to tell O’Mara “good job” after a hustle play preceding at timeout with 3:53 left.
Guarding Kempton was no easy feat for O’Mara or fellow bigs Gaston and Jones. It was a solid test out of the gates but it also showed there’s work to be done in the interior.
"On the offensive end, they were much more confident," Mack said of the frontcourt. "They needed to rebound the ball a little bit better than they did. But they had a huge challenge. Tim Kempton got the best of them. There’s a reason he's on the (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Award watch) list. He’s one of the best bigs in the country and he showed it tonight.
"We have to be a little bit better defensively on a guy like that than we were. At times we did a really good job. And then it would be bucket, bucket, bucket. That can’t happen. Awareness, readiness, toughness, ball pressure – all those things have to be better."