McAfee lifts XU at right time

Wednesday, November 18, 1998

INDIANAPOLIS - The leading roles have been cast. Gary Lumpkin and Lenny Brown are still the big shots of Xavier basketball, and that much is not about to change.

They are the guards who make the Musketeers go, old high school teammates now eight years in tandem. Brown and Lumpkin have been together so long, they should be introduced as an entry: 1 and 1A. Ying and yang.

But perhaps these brothers of the backcourt are not so close that they can not be separated. Perhaps Xavier coach Skip Prosser can also find a suitable part for Maurice McAfee.

"Tonight," Prosser said Tuesday, "his role was pretty prominent."

Xavier opened its season with a 73-66 victory over Butler, and for a long time Maurice McAfee was about all that separated the 16th-ranked Muskies from Abject Upset. For nearly 17 minutes, the spindly sophomore from Saginaw, Mich., was the only Xavier player to sink a shot from the field, and the only one who seemed to appreciate the distinction between the ball and a brick.

Prosser's starting five shot 1-for-17 from the field in the first half, with eight turnovers and six fouls. It was about as bad a stretch of basketball as the Muskies have played in the '90s, about as poorly as any team could play without blindfolds. Had this been the opening night of a play instead of an athletic competition, the critics would have bailed out by intermission. The sportswriters, sadly, were stuck.

Lumpkin was starting his 83rd straight game for Xavier, and Brown was back for his 77th straight start. But Prosser's most seasoned starters were slow to warm up at stuffy Hinkle Fieldhouse. Lumpkin was 0-for-6 from the field in the first half; Brown picked up three fouls in only six minutes of action.

Stepping up

Thus fate forced Maurice McAfee into the fray, and he rose to the occasion as if a hydraulic lift had been installed in his sneakers. He made six of nine shots from the field in the first period, including a three-point bomb just before the halftime buzzer, to lift the Muskies from a 12-point deficit to a two-point lead.

"I made a lot of mistakes," McAfee confessed. "I'm just thankful I played a pretty good game. I was in a rhythm. It felt good."

Normally, McAfee's first impression is anything but intimidating. He wears his shorts so low and his socks so high that his uniform could nearly pass for knickers. But he has returned from a productive summer with an improved jump shot, a more muscular frame and his quickness intact. He has made himself a guy you have to guard.

He finished Tuesday's game with 20 points, but his first half alone represented a career high. In 28 games last season, he exceeded eight points only once.

Tuesday's output was so startling, and such a relief to the off-target Musketeers, that the rehabilitating Darnell Williams wrapped McAfee in an affectionate headlock as they left the floor at the half.

"He didn't play that much last year," Williams said later. "He had to keep his head up and keep playing. I'd been telling him, 'You've got to step up,' and tonight he did."

Like a lot of young players, Maurice McAfee has sometimes been slow to assert himself. Williams has chided him for being too passive, and Prosser went so far as to devote recent practice time to a scenario in which the Xavier backups were asked to play from behind, as if a real game sat on their shoulders.

McAfee made a three-point shot at the buzzer to tie that simulated game. Tuesday night, he came through when it counted.

"We wanted them to be prepared for it," Prosser said of the practice exercise. "What the Boy Scouts say is Semper paratus. Tonight, that part of it worked out. A lot of stuff didn't."

Most nights, Lumpkin and Brown won't need so much help. Most nights, Maurice McAfee will spend the bulk of the game on the bench. But if his confidence needed any bolstering, Tuesday's game could have been a breakthrough.

"Everyone's going to have their day in the sun," Gary Lumpkin said. "Today was Mo's day."

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