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Sports Weekend, 3/4/2011: Lehigh's Mission: Silence Sojka

Lehigh's wrestling and men's basketball teams have one mission this weekend: to travel to the cow pastures in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania and silence Sojka.

And no, I don't mean the Polish jazz musician, either.

Bucknell's Sojka Pavillion will be hosting two huge events this weekend that are of interest to Lehigh fans: the 107th EIWA Wrestling Championships (which will determine the Lehigh wrestlers that will go on and compete in the NCAA Championships in Philadelphia, PA), and Lehigh's win-or-go-home game against the Bucknell Bison in the semifinals of the men's Patriot League basketball tournament.

It's going to be a "deluxe" weekend out in the cow pastures they call Lewisburg, PA for Lehigh fans.  Their goal will be to allow the locals to hear the mooing in the pastures - and keep Sojka's home fans in stunned silence for 72 hours. (more)

It will be easier for Lehigh's top-ranked wrestling team to keep Sojka quiet than Lehigh's men's basketball team. That's because the No. 8-ranked Mountain Hawks are entering the tournament with a real chance to win their first EIWA championship since 2006.

Heading the charge to Bucknell in undoubtedly heavyweight Zach Rey, the No. 1 ranked heavyweight wrestler in the nation and a real threat to be crowned NCAA champion at that weight class. He's 26-0 this year in all his dual bouts, already putting him alongside such Lehigh wrestling luminaries such as Jon Trenge and Troy Letters, and Lehigh fans are hoping for the same sort of result at the championships that he's enjoyed all season.

But Rey is not the only wrestler heading to Bucknell with hopes of competing in Philadelphia. Notably, Rey will not be the only No. 1 seed coming from Lehigh in their respective weight classes. Sophomore Robert Hamlin (184) and freshman Stephen Dutton (141) should also be No. 1 seeds, giving them both a golden opportunity to head to the NCAAs and give Lehigh that elusive EIWA title.

Rey, Dutton and Hamlin are not the only wrestlers that are nationally-ranked going into this weekend. Freshman Frank Cangina (133), sophomore Joey Napoli (149), junior Brandon Hatchett (165), freshman Austin Meys (174) and junior Joe Kennedy (197) are all nationally-ranked, and all have a real chance to make the NCAAs and maybe even win their weight classes in the EIWA championship.

Defending champions Cornell is likely to give Lehigh a run for their money. Eager to avenge their dual loss to Lehigh in January, it's going to be worth looking at the position of wrestlers such as Mack Lewnes (174) Steve Bozack (184) and Justin Kerber (165). Down the line, the potential for rematches of Bozack/Hamlin, Kerber/Hachett and Mays/Lewnes are going to be something to look for this weekend.

The action begins on Saturday at 10:00 AM with premlims, quarters and consolations, and continues with the finals on Sunday morning, concluding with the finals at 3:00PM Eastern. Lehigh wrestling fans who don't want to make the trip to cow country can catch all the action on Lehighsports.com, with Steve Lomangino calling the action.

*****

Those Lehigh fans headed to see the finals might just want to stay a few extra hours, too, for some more postseason Mountain Hawk action.

Televised nationally on CBS College Sports at 7PM on Sunday, Bucknell will clear Sojka after the EIWA championships to prepare for Patriot League semifinal action.

With this elimination game, Lehigh aims to erase the memories of their season sweep against the Bison. Two of their worst games of the Patriot League schedule came against Bucknell, including a 72-55 whomping just a couple of weeks ago at Sojka.

"“The story of the second half was our inefficiency on offense," coach Brett Reed said after the game. "We had a number of turnovers and when we had quality looks, we didn’t knock them down."

18 - count 'em - turnovers doomed Lehigh after a strong start and only a three point deficit at halftime. In the second half, it seemed like Bucknell head coach Dave Paulsen made some key adjustments to clog Lehigh's passing lanes - that led to transition baskets at the other end.

Bucknell's brutally efficient, water-torture offense was in great form in that game as G Darryl Shazier (15 points, 5 steals) and G Bryan Cohen (13 points, 6 assists) were key elements in the Bison's resounding win. Shazier's 3-point game in particular - an effecient 3-for-5 off of beautifully executed screens - were a dagger in Lehigh's chances.

Does Lehigh have a chance this weekend in Sojka to allow a national TV audience to hear the moos?

If they do just that, it will require building off their dominating win against Navy in the first round.

The 87-75 final score didn't really reflect how lopsided this score actually was, where Lehigh at one point had a 23 point lead. A last-second tip-in by G C.J. McCollum gave Lehigh a 4-point lead at halftime, and Lehigh seemed to harness the momentum from that basket to run past the Midshipmen after that, scoring 28 of the next 39 points in the game.

“There have been spots within the last two games where we’ve played excellent basketball, but have been unable to sustain it,” said coach Reed after the game. “Tonight, we put together a more complete game - both offensively and defensively.  I think G Rob Keefer was as solid, and steady, as played as good defense as I've seen him play all year.”

The really encouraging statistic for Lehigh was some fantastic scoring off the bench from junior F Jordan Hamilton (15 points, 4 rebounds) and senior G Prentice Small (11 points, 3 assists). Their spark off the bench was critical to Lehigh's victory, as was (of course) McCollum's 25 points and 4 boards and senior G Michael Ojo's yeoman effort (7 points, 7 boards).

“I thought our defensive intensity and energy at times was absolutely terrific,” said Reed. “Our bench production was outstanding and seniors came through and produced [as well].”

Can Lehigh upset Bucknell on Sunday? Hamilton thinks so.

When asked by Lehigh announcer Matt Kerr if the third time was going to be the charm against Bucknell, he said, "I really do. This is the matchup we've wanted all year. We're really hungry for this. we want to get this one more than anything."

"If you're going to be the best, you've got to beat the best," Reed added.

It will take nothing less than the best Mountain Hawk effort of the year to make it happen. In this reporter's opinion, it will require a better turnover-to-assist ratio; more great bench production; and a big effort from F Gabe Knutson.  Reed mentioned "unselfishness" and "energy" as the keys to having a good chance up at Sojka.

Whether you catch the game on CBS College Sports with Bob Socci and John Feinstein making the call, or stay in Lewisburg a couple of hours after the EIWA championships, or listen to the game on AM 1230 and 1320 with Matt Kerr and Greg Falkenbach on the call, you can bet I'll be following this game.

I'll be listening for the moos.

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