Taking advantage of a holiday weekend - and a 5:00PM start for the women's game - I hustled my family into the car on a frigid Saturday afternoon to make my pilgrimage to Stabler to take in a women's/men's basketball doubleheader featuring my Mountain Hawks.
After pulling into the parking lot, we walked into Stabler as a physical, emotional Akron team started to really take it to the flat Lady Hawks, who was playing their third basketball game in five days. The 6-6 Zips, who just fell to Temple 55-43 a few days ago, surged to a 23-14 lead after Akron senior G Ayla Guzzardo stole the ball from junior G Erica Prosser to convert an easy transition basket. (more)
Lady Hawk head basketball coach Sue Troyan cooly called a 30 second timeout after the play, though, and quickly got her team back together after Zips freshman F Rachel Tecca converted an old-fashioned three-point play to go up by 11 midway through the first half. Led by sophomore F Emily Gratch and junior F Courtney Dentler getting tough steals and baskets inside, it was senior G Alex Ross' 3 pointer that tied the game at 30 and led to a narrow 1 point lead at halftime.
Lehigh's swarming defense caused Akron's offense to seize up for long stretches, and also showed the Zips firey head coach Jodi Kest at her best, working the officials relentlessly and getting in her players' faces to keep them focused. It was interesting to see the contrast with the Zen-style of coaching of Ms. Troyan in comparison - while Kest was standing almost the entire game, Troyan only got up once - or twice - the entire time, even when Lehigh was down by double digits.
The second half was thrilling, with the physical Lady Zips and the swarming Lady Hawks never enjoying more than a 6 point lead one way or another the rest of the way. Prosser's 10 points - which gave her 1,000 for her Lehigh career so far - overshadowed an off day for the Pittsburgh, PA native (4-14 shooting, 4 assists). Erica did manage five big steals, however, including a huge one with two minutes to play to give Lehigh a 56-50 advantage.
With Prosser possibly feeling the effects of her third game in six days, and Ross (8 points) not totally getting things going, it was up to the Lehigh frontcourt to get tough points against Akron's tough inside game. Dentler ended the game with 13 points and 7 rebouds, while Gratch finished the game with 16 points and 4 rebounds to carry the Lady Hawks. When Gratch fouled out, sophomore F/C Alexa Williams came off the bench to take her place - and ultimately made the shot of the game.
With 28 seconds left, Akron junior F Kara Murphy tied the game with a huge three-pointer from the left corner to tie the game 57. But senior G Tricia Smith found Williams under the basket with only two seconds left for the game-winning runner off the left hand - her only basket on the afternoon - which won the game.
“When they tied it I said we’re not going to lose this game," Williams said after the game. "They trapped Erica and it was only me and Tricia left and when they went towards her I knew it was now or never. There was no way we were going to lose.”
The Lady Hawks are now 12-2 and off to their best start in program history, preserving a 25 game home court winning streak and now have a Real Time RPI of 43 (also the best RPI in program history). Lehigh boasts wins over 12-2 St. Bonaventure and 10-2 Villanova - both strong possibilities to be NCAA tournament teams - while only losing to 12-2 Vanderbilt and 11-2 Princeton, both on the road and also strong NCAA tournament team possibilities. Next up for Lehigh: a trip to Penn on Tuesday to play in the historic Palestra.
The second game of the doubleheader looked like a mismatch, with a 5-8 NJIT team who counted two wins over 2-12 Wagner as their only Division I victories on the season. 7-6 Lehigh, on paper, should have dominated - but then again, the games are played on the court, not on paper. Early on, the Highlanders showed that they were going to make a game of it.
After jumping to a 6 point lead off of freshman G C.J. McCollum's uncontested 3 pointer on the 3/4 mark on the right side, the Mountain Hawks ended up losing that lead and even went into halftime with a one-point deficit, thanks to the guard play of junior G Jheryl Wilson (10-18 shooting, 27 points) and sophomore G Isaiah Wilkerson (14-16 FT, 22 points). Wilson had 18 in the first half.
Wilson's and Wilkerson's torrid shooting eclipsed the fact that Lehigh really did a good job taking care of the ball, with only 7 turnovers and making 39% from 3-point range. Junior G Michael Ojo was a big part of that, too, scoring 6 points off the bench but also getting 5 rebounds and six assists on the evening.
In years past, with senior G Marquis Hall (6 points, 6 assists) and senior F Zahir Carrington (10 points, 6 rebounds) didn't have double-digit scoring games, the Mountain Hawks may as well have gone home expecting the loss. But this game, freshman F Gabe Knutson (23 points, 4 rebounds) had a career day and truly stepped up to give Lehigh win. After jumping to a 4 point lead, Lehigh went on a 19-1 run, spurred by Knutson's 8 points and his cool baseline moves, using his long arms to make big baskets.
Up by 14 midway through the second half, Lehigh fans might be excused for heading to the exits expecting a comfortable win. But NJIT battled all the way back - much of it coming from the foul line, where the Highlanders and Mountain Hawks engaged in a plodding, foul-for-foul affair - cutting the deficit to 72-69 with just over 2 minutes left. Overall, Lehigh attempted 40 foul shots, including an amazing 31 in the second half. (Both teams struggled from the charity stripe: NJIT shot 75%, Lehigh shot 78%.)
“NJIT came out very strong tonight and forced us to play catch-up,” Lehigh head coach Brett Reed said after the game. “We made a nice run in the second half to take the lead, but we lost focus down the stretch and allowed NJIT to come back into the game. It was certainly much closer than we wanted it to be, but that was a good test for our guys as we continue to learn how to play with the lead and put teams away.”
Fittingly, it was McCollum's final two free throws - his 17th and 18th for the game - that gave Lehigh the final 86-79 score. The emergence of the two freshmen in this game has got to be a fantastic way for Lehigh basketball fans to usher in the new year - and give Lehigh hope that they will that second and third option on offense to make a run at the Patriot League title. The fact that Lehigh has won their last four games, too, has to make Lehigh fans happy as well.
Next up for the Mountain Hawks: their final out-of-conference game of the year as they host Yale on Tuesday at Stabler at 7:05 PM.