CINCINNATI (AP) - Drew Lavender reached in and smacked the arm of a La Salle player who was trying to get off a shot in the lane, drawing a whistle and a foul.
When referee Gene Steratore headed toward the scorer's table and held up two fingers, then four, to signify the point guard's number, an Xavier fan lodged a protest.
``Hey Geno,'' the fan yelled. ``Give the little guy a break!''
Lavender doesn't need any breaks. Usually, it's the other way around. The 5-foot-7, 160-pound point guard is the shortest player in the Atlantic 10, but has a knack for taking charge of a game in which size matters.
``He's learned to be successful at his height and not only make it a nonfactor, but almost make it to his advantage,'' coach Sean Miller said.
The senior leads the Atlantic 10 in assists-to-turnover ratio and ranks 13th nationally, a big reason No. 13 Xavier is one of the country's most efficient teams. Twice this season, the Musketeers have had seven players score in double figures, a testament to their share-the-ball mentality.
It starts with Lavender, who knew from his first years in the gym that he would have to do things a little differently. Lavender's father and two brothers were short, so he knew he wasn't going to grow much.
He first dribbled a basketball at age 3, and quickly grew to love the game that his father coached. So what if he wound up guarded by much taller players?
``I've been smaller than everybody since second or third grade, when other people started growing and I stayed the same size,'' Lavender said. ``I pretty much have just dealt with it. I kept on playing basketball, and I was pretty good.''
In part because he was so good on the court, he didn't get much teasing on the streets.
``A little bit, but they were just having fun,'' he said. ``Nothing too bad, like where I went home crying or anything like that.''
He had three things in his favor: Lavender is so quick that others can't keep up; his coordination allows him to do amazing things with the ball; his determination turns his teams into winners.
Lavender played on an AAU team that was one of the best in the country. His Brookhaven High School team in suburban Columbus won the state title in 2002, then lost to Cincinnati Moeller in the championship game a year later.
pushes the ball, he scores off layups against bigger people, he can shoot the jumper, he raises his team. He does everything.''
Everything except dunk.
To flourish in a big man's game, Lavender developed a floating jumper - the shot has hardly any rotation - that he lofts over those long, outstretched arms a few feet from the basket. He hardly ever misses.
``Man, that's amazing,'' said Duncan, his closest friend on the team. ``He's so quick. He can shake guys and get himself open for the floater or a layup.''
Lavender is so smooth with the ball that it's rare when someone strips it away. In the closing minutes of a 77-65 win at Massachusetts on Jan. 27, the Minutemen sent three defenders after Lavender to try for a steal. He dribbled past the first two, then was fouled by the third as he went past.
``It makes me laugh sometimes,'' Duncan said. ``We throw it in to him, everybody just clears the court and you know he's going to bring it up. It seems like they can put the whole team on him and he'll still go past them.''
When Creighton tried to press the Musketeers in December, Lavender took advantage by scoring 28 points and getting 10 assists in a 79-66 win.
``He really gave us fits,'' Creighton coach Dana Altman said.
Lavender is one of the A10's most accurate outside shooters, but looks to pass first. He averages 12.1 points per game, and could have many more if he tried.
``He's very unselfish,'' Miller said. ``That's a characteristic that our team takes from him.''
A sign of his unselfishness: Lavender took only four shots in a 69-43 win over then-No. 16 Dayton on Jan. 24, knowing the Musketeers were better off attacking the Flyers' depleted front line.
As his college reputation has grown, Lavender has heard fewer comments from opposing fans about his height.
``One of them yelled at me, 'Hey, Gary Coleman,''' Lavender said, smiling at the reference to the 4-foot-8 actor.
One of Lavender's favorite NBA players is the 5-foot-5 Earl Boykins, an example of how short players can prosper at the highest level. The smallest player in NBA history was 5-foot-3 Muggsy Bogues. Spud Webb also was 5-foot-7.
Lately, Lavender's height has become a selling point. Before a game Sunday against Saint Joseph's, the Musketeers planned to give away Drew Lavender growth charts.
``That will be nice,'' Duncan said, chuckling. ``I'm going to get one for myself.''

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