Published December 23, 2011
HONOLULU – Despite dropping two straight, No. 14 Xavier isn't panicking yet because the Musketeers know they'll soon be at full strength.
Tu Holloway who returned from a one-game suspension and finished with 17 points and four assists in Xavier's 68-58 loss to Long Beach State in the opening round of the Diamond Head Classic on Thursday night.
The Musketeers (8-2) had their star point guard back were still without starting guard Mark Lyons, starting forward Dez Wells and reserve Landen Amos. All four were suspended after a bench-clearing brawl Dec. 10 against Cincinnati. Lyons is eligible to return Friday, while Wells and Amos will miss the tournament while serving their four-game penalties.
"We've got competitive kids," Musketeers coach Chris Mack said. "They know it's a long season. We have the ability within 24 hours to feel a lot better about ourselves because of the tournament format. We've got to come out tomorrow night and quickly feel better about ourselves."
Freshman Michael Caffey scored a career-high 14 points to lead five Long Beach State players in double figures. Casper Ware, Larry Anderson and Eugene Phelps each had 12 points, and T.J. Robinson added 11 points and five rebounds.
The 49ers (6-5) advanced to the semifinals Friday against Auburn, while the Musketeers will face Hawaii. Auburn beat Hawaii 65-62 in the late game.
Xavier's loss of firepower showed against Long Beach State, which used aggressive defense and kept heavy pressure on Holloway.
"We knew we had to get to Holloway and get the ball out of his hands," Caffey said.
The Musketeers started out slow and sloppy, going several minutes without a basket as Holloway faced constant double-teams.
"That's nothing new. But when he doesn't have a couple of running mates that take a little pressure off and are able to get to the rim easier maybe than the guys we have on the floor tonight, that's the game plan," Mack said. "But hopefully as we start to welcome these other guys back, we'll be a little tougher team than to key on one guy on the perimeter."
After a close first half, Long Beach State took control in the second. The 49ers came out after the break with a 12-4 run to take a 41-25 lead. Ware had six points during the surge.
"I think the first 4 minutes out of half, they score 11 points. You can't do that," Mack said.
The 49ers then went up 63-45 on Ware's 3-pointer with 3:11 remaining. Xavier, using a full-court press, clawed back, scoring three straight baskets, but couldn't cut Long Beach State's lead to single digits.
Holloway started finding his groove after Caffey's 3-pointer that pushed Long Beach State's lead back to 16 with 14:08 left. Holloway dropped a tough fadeaway and fed Andre Walker and Travis Taylor on two layups to cut the 49ers' lead to 10, drawing a quick timeout from Mack.
Holloway then stripped Ware near midcourt and took it to the basket, cutting the 49ers' lead to 46-38 with 11:19 left. But the Musketeers never got any closer.
Long Beach State struggled from the stripe, hitting just 54 percent of its free throws, which kept Xavier in the game.
Justin Martin's 3-pointer with 16:07 left in the first half gave Xavier a 9-6 lead — its last of the game.
The Musketeers didn't score again until Holloway's step-back, fadeaway jumper from 18 feet about 7 1/2 minutes later that that cut the deficit to 16-11. Long Beach State went on a 9-0 run during that stretch capped by a three-point play by Phelps.
Martin finished with 12 points for Xavier.
"We're struggling to score on offensive. I thought we played hard defensively," Mack said. "You look at Long Beach State's scores against storied programs. They've virtually scored in the mid-80s every game. I thought we were fine on that end. Offensively, our posts have to produce a little more around the basket for us."
Xavier center Kenny Frease, who needed seven stitches below his left eye after being punched by Cincinnati's Yancy Gates during the brawl, picked up two early fouls and played just 9 minutes in the first half. He finished with 10 points and one rebound.
Xavier was Long Beach State's fifth ranked opponent this season. The 49ers beat Pitt but lost to Louisville, Kansas and North Carolina.