March 19, 2012
Xavier advanced to the Sweet 16 for the fourth time in five years and Saint Louis nearly became the first team to take down a one seed during the 2012 NCAA Championship round of 32.
XAVIER 70, LEHIGH 58
GREENSBORO, N.C. (AP) - 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."
MICHIGAN STATE 65, SAINT LOUIS 61
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - The sweet moment Brian Conklin had imagined, the one where he and his teammates danced around the floor in celebration, was now washed away by tears.
After Saint Louis' season ended with a loss to Michigan State, Conklin, who was part of coach Rick Majerus' first recruiting class with the Billikens, couldn't control his emotions as he broke down and wept.
For all its joy, March can be equally cruel.
The Billikens, executing Majerus' game plan of slowing down the Spartans to perfection, gave the top seed all it could handle Sunday before falling 65-61 in the West Regional. Saint Louis' first tournament appearance since 2000 was a success, but it ended one win shy of the school getting to the round of 16 for the first time.
In the end, Michigan State had a little more.
"We fought our guts out," Majerus said.
Conklin scored 11 points in his final college game and did all he could in guarding Michigan State's sensational Draymond Green, who finished with 16 points and 13 rebounds. Conklin bravely answered questions during the postgame news conference when a request about Majerus' influence triggered a sentimental outpouring of gratitude.
"Coach has done so much," Conklin said. "Being his first recruiting class, he told me that we were going to help him build something special here. And it felt like this year it really came together. He's a great coach. I couldn't imagine playing for a better coach, a better person. He doesn't just teach you about basketball, it's about life.
"We all love each other in that locker room."
Make no mistake, Majerus, who remains one of basketball's best quotes, can still coach. After retiring briefly for health issues and working as a TV analyst, he's back where he belongs - on a college campus helping young men improve their skills on and off the floor.
Now that the season's over, Majerus intends to take some time off, but the 64-year-old plans to return to the Billikens.
"I am old," he said, drawing laughter. "Listen, my AARP card says I'm old. I would really like to come back. You're born and you die alone. I could get killed driving home tonight. But I really plan to be there. I wouldn't do that to the kids. I told all those kids at Utah I would stay, and I did. Urban Meyer and everybody else left Utah.
"They tried to get out. I made commitments to kids. We've got a lot of good guys coming back. I just want to take some time off."
With Michigan State's season in peril, Green turned to teammate Keith Appling during a timeout and told him to be ready. His moment was near.
And when it arrived, Appling delivered.
His shot, the one Green urged him to take, helped save the Spartans.
Appling's critical 3-pointer with 1:34 left, a 20-foot jumper set up by Green's drive and marvelous pass, advanced the Spartans, who survived a 90-foot tug-of-war and wills with the scrappy Billikens.
Green's sixth assist, a two-handed, overhead pass across the floor, set up Appling and allowed the Spartans (29-7) to advance. They'll play No. 4 seed Louisville in the West Regional semifinals Thursday in Phoenix.
"I don't need to be a hero trying to make some scoop layup," Green said of his decision to pass up a shot. "If I see a guy open, I'm going to hit him. He was wide open in the corner, and I knew once he caught the ball, it was going in. I didn't try to get the rebound. I ran down the court. I already knew it was going in."
Sitting a few feet away on the podium, Tom Izzo gave his star an incredulous look.
"Why didn't you tell me?" Izzo said.
"Wasn't enough time," Green replied.
Appling added 19 points for the Spartans, who had to scrap their way past the ninth-seeded Billikens, who controlled the tempo but never got a complete handle on Green. Michigan State's superb, do-everything senior even grabbed a mop and helped wipe up some sweat off the floor in the final minute.
Sweeping past the Billikens was much tougher.
Kwamain Mitchell scored 13 and Jordair Jett had 10 for Saint Louis, which was within 55-51 when Appling hit his shot.
"We made them earn every shot that they took," said Conklin, who worked hard on his game last summer. "The game plan worked to perfection. The guy that we wanted to make shots, he hit a couple. And that's the difference in the game, four points, but that was the whole game plan. I said it was going to be a war - dirty basketball."
After missing out for 12 years, Saint Louis was again a player in the NCAA tournament. The Billikens beat Memphis in their opener to earn a shot at Michigan State.
"It's an honor and privilege," Majerus said "We have a good chance of being back."