By Jared Leveson (@jared_leveson)
PRINCETON, N.J. — Xaivian Lee's emergence as one of the best players in the Ivy League and mid-major level this season is no accident.
The Perkiomen School product got his feet wet last year and soaked up guidance from upperclassmen. He saw how they balanced school and basketball.
He was eager for his sophomore season.
Then things started to click for Lee over the summer, playing for Team Canada at the FIBA U-19 World Cup in Hungary.
"It kinda all came together," he said about the tournament, where he averaged 14 points and three assists per game. "That kind of gave me the confidence going into this year. I just came very determined.
"I wanted to show that I could do it at this level too."
Lee's showing that he can perform and dominate at the Division I level. He continued his stellar sophomore campaign in front of a sold-out Jadwin Gymnasium on Saturday night. Lee registered his second career double-double, helping the Tigers overcome a four-point halftime deficit and defeat the Quakers, 77-70.
Princeton sophomore Xaivian Lee scored 22 points in Saturday's win over Penn. (Photo: Courtesy Princeton Athletics)
The Toronto native finished the evening with 22 points and went 7-of-12 from the field, 3-for-6 from beyond the arc, and 5-for-6 from the charity stripe. His ten rebounds were one shy of the team-high 11, and he also dished out five assists.
"I haven't felt great all week," Lee said. "I didn't get to work out much, so my shot kind of felt terrible, so I just tried to get downhill a little bit to get started, and it doesn't hurt when you make your first couple. After that, my confidence was 100 percent, just attacking, [and] finding others."
"Xaivian got me a wide open look on the first play of the game," sophomore teammate Caden Pierce added.
"He makes my job easy. He finds me in spots where I am successful."
Lee leads the Ivy League in assist/turnover ratio (2.1), ranks third in scoring (17.8), and is sixth in assists (3.3).
He is Princeton's (17-3, 5-2 Ivy) leading scorer, shooting 48% from the field and 38% from three. Saturday was also his sixth game this season where he scored at least 20 points.
"It's my teammates trusting me, my coaches trusting me, [and] putting in the work," Lee explained. "And in the games, just trying to play without fear and make the right play."
"What I appreciate most about [him] is [his] willingness to get better and dictate coaching," Princeton head coach Mitch Henderson added.
Lee's play has placed him on the Lute Olson and Lou Henson National Player of the Year Award Midseason Watch Lists. The former is determined by a 10-member voting committee comprising former head coaches. The latter award is presented annually to the top mid-major player in Division I basketball.
In his freshman season, Lee scored 152 total points. Through 20 games so far, Lee has put up 361. He's grown a lot since then and is grateful for the lumps he took.
Lee learned how critical it was to wake up earlier, make time to work out every day, and put on weight, which he admits were things he wasn't doing as much as he should've done last season.
"Just as a freshman, I didn't know what to expect," he said about his first-year struggles. "I think last year was kinda learning from the older guys: Tosan Evbuomwan, Ryan Lanborg, Keeshawn Kellman (Perkiomen School), playing behind them, seeing how they go about their day.
"I dont think I'm near where I should be, but I'm definitely getting there."
Even a few NBA scouts were in attendance at Jadwin on Saturday night, but the increased recognition hasn't phased the young Canadian.
"I do the same stuff everyday, hang out with the same people," he said. "I dont think it's really changed anything that I do."
The 249th edition of Penn-Princeton was a hard fought battle with six ties and seven lead changes throughout the contest.
Penn (9-13, 1-5 Ivy) did a good job playing team defense around Lee in the second half, limiting him to only five points. However, he still impacted the glass, which helped Princeton secure the win.
Lee recorded six defensive rebounds in the second half, getting the stops necessary down the stretch.
With 9:07 remaining in the game and Penn up 54-53, Lee secured a rebound off a missed jumper by Penn's Tyler Perkins. He dashed up the floor and stayed aggressive with the ball; as the defense collapsed, he found senior Zach Martini open for three to put Princeton up by two.
The game opened up after this, and the Tigers and Quakers traded baskets until the media timeout at the seven-minute mark, with Princeton leading 62-61.
A few minutes later, Lee grabbed Penn's Nick Spinoso’s missed layup with 5:06 left. Princeton teammate Blake Peters turned that rebound into a three to extend Princeton's lead to 72-61 with 4:13 remaining.
It was Princeton's largest lead of the game. Penn got the lead cut to 74-70 with 12 seconds remaining, but it was a little too late for the Quakers.
"We just got stops," Lee said.
Lee also credits Perkiomen for his emergence as an elite Ivy League guard. It instilled habits in him that he still uses today, especially when practicing shooting on the "The Gun."
He hadn't used the machine until he got to Perkiomen.
"Nights here when I get bored, I just come down and shoot by myself on "The Gun," he said.
The extra-time shooting is more than paying off for Lee and the Tigers.
Princeton has won nine straight against Penn since the 2017-2018 season. Saturday also marked the third straight time that Princeton has overcome a halftime deficit and defeated Penn.
The Tigers erased Penn's 17-point halftime lead during last season's Ivy League regular-season finale and defeated the Quakers 77-69. One week later, in the Ivy League Tournament semifinal, Penn led at the half and fell 77-70.
Lee and Princeton will face off with Penn again at the Palestra on March 9.