Three Key Takeaways.
- A sea change. With six minutes to play in the first half, Lehigh was up 31-16, with everything going their way. But by halftime, Xavier had cut the lead to only four points. The momentum stayed with the Musketeers the entirety of the second half as they quickly surpassed Lehigh, and the Mountain Hawks never could quite catch up. The difference between the Lehigh team that started the game and the Lehigh team that started the second half was night and day. Shots that rattled around and went in before now rattled around and popped out; loose balls they got to against Duke suddenly were in the hands of Xavier’s players. This Mountain Hawks team that so many in Greensboro adopted never stopped playing hard, the breaks just stopped falling their way halfway through the game.
- Xavier’s redemption. First it was the brawl. Then it was two months of up-and-down, uninspired play. It’s hard to believe that this Xavier team that couldn’t get any momentum after December is finally gaining steam now, in the NCAA tournament. As the last few seconds ticked off the clock, Musketeer fans cheered as much in relief as in celebration, happy that this season which felt so derailed before now seems to be exactly where they want it to be. Xavier’s players, however, want more: many played on Sean Miller’s and Chris Mack’s Sweet 16 teams in 2009 and 2010. It would be truly remarkable for this team, counted out by many, to surpass those prior teams’ accomplishments.
- Everybody loves Lehigh. If you polled the state of North Carolina this weekend on who their favorite NCAA basketball team was, Lehigh would probably come in third after UNC and NC State. Both the team and their fans were embraced by the locals after their defeat of Duke. A group of Lehigh fans who made the trip to Chapel Hill over the weekend reportedly ate and drank for free during their entire visit. One media member in Greensboro who usually covers Duke basketball commented during the middle of tonight’s game, “Man, I may be neutral on the outside, but I’m cheering like hell for Lehigh to get back into this game. I want history.” They were a pleasure to cover, and incredibly fun to watch on the court–always moving, tenacious, and incredibly fast. Though they were undersized and less talented than their opponents, the Mountain Hawks were more exciting than any number of major conference teams. The college basketball world should look forward to any chance they get to watch this team in the future.
Star of the game. Kenny Frease, Xavier. Though Lehigh had players nearly as tall as Frease, they had no one as big as the Xavier center. Dwarfing his opponents, Frease shot an astounding 11-for-13 from the floor, wracking up 25 points and 12 rebounds, with four coming off the offensive glass. “Exploit Lehigh’s size” is a good strategy, but as Duke showed, it’s a difficult one to implement. Kudos to the 7’0″, 275-pound Frease for doing what the Plumlees couldn’t. He wasn’t flashy, but he was utterly unstoppable tonight.
Sights & Sounds. The word that best describes the ambiance during tonight’s game is “surreal.” On one side of the court, Lehigh fans packed their entire seating section. On the other side, Xavier fans did the same. The more than twenty section between the two warring factions were sparsely populated with seated North Carolina Tar Heels fans, all seemingly in shock at the news of Kendall Marshall’s injury. For much of the first half, press row was nearly empty due to all the media members who were trying to get any information they could about the UNC point guard. Only twice did the neutral spectators make considerable noise: first booing when a fan held up a sign reading “NC State: 1983 All Over Again,” and later joining in when Lehigh’s fans started a “Let’s go Tar Heels!” chant late in the second half, returning the favor for the support UNC fans gave their team on Friday.
Quotable. “I sit here in front of all of you disappointed, but very proud, proud of the young men that I’ve had the opportunity to coach throughout the course of this season, proud of the young men who have grown and developed through the course of their career in our program, proud of the development of underclassmen as they have become stronger and greater leaders. And I’m proud to be able to represent Lehigh University in the NCAA tournament.” – Lehigh head coach Brett Reed
What’s Next? Xavier moves onto the Sweet 16 in Atlanta, where they will meet #3 seed Baylor. At first glance, the Musketeers have the height and firepower to hang with the Bears, but Chris Mack has to worry that Baylor might be just slightly better at everything than his team. Xavier does many things well, but Baylor does all those same things very, very well. Xavier’s next challenge will be a tough one.