If there was ever a time for the Lehigh Mountain Hawks to have an off-night, Wednesday night in Washington D.C. presented a perfect opportunity. C.J. McCollum was back on campus rehabbing his broken foot. Preseason All-Patriot League selection Gabe Knutson sat on the bench midway through the first half saddled with two fouls. The American Eagles drained five of their first nine shots – with four of them from behind the arc – to race out to a 21-9 advantage. With the Mountain Hawks back on their heels, the energized home court could practically smell the upset.
It would have been an ideal time for Dr. Brett Reed’s undermanned team to call it a night. But Holden Greiner and the defense simply wouldn’t allow for that to happen.
The 6’8″ senior played the game of his life, scoring 18 of his 22 points (on 10 of 13 shooting) in the first half to will his Mountain Hawks back into the game. Greiner’s energy, versatility, and ability to score from anywhere on the floor sparked a 22-7 run to close out the first half. The comeback gave Lehigh a lead that frankly didn’t seem possible only ten minutes prior.
“I thought Holden’s offensive attack and energy was a big catalyst for our run to get us back into the game,” said Reed. “He played with a great deal of confidence tonight. He had an aggressive attack mentality and he’s multi-faceted with his skill level. He can step out and shoot the ball. He drives the basketball effectively to finish. He also has very good vision, so he’s great for other people as help comes. Because of that combination, it makes him a difficult cover.”
The Mountain Hawks slowly extended their lead to a game high 12 points, 55-43, midway through the second half. This time, it was the defense that stymied the Eagles. Lehigh forced 15 turnovers in the game, leading to 14 points. American head coach Jeff Jones, while satisfied with his team’s overall effort in their second Patriot League game of the season, wasn’t pleased with their offensive execution, especially in the second half.
“Lehigh is a very good defensive team, but a majority of our turnovers were us not being strong with the ball and us making some poor decisions,” said the veteran coach. “That kind of self-inflicted damage in a close game makes it tough to win against a quality opponent in Lehigh.”
American, sparked by their crowd and their distinct interior advantage with big men Stephen Lumpkins and Tony Wroblicky, still wouldn’t go down without a fight. When senior Blake Jolivette knifed his way through the lane for a lay-up, Lehigh’s once dominant lead was cut to three points late. But then three straight turnovers on the ensuing three possessions ensured the Mountain Hawks would never relinquish their lead for the rest of the night. It all came back to defense.
“Our defense was key for our victory tonight,” said Reed. “I think American played very well in the beginning of the game. They made shots, they made the right plays at the right time, which allowed them to be efficient. And because they played so well, I think we went back on our heels just a little bit. However, I do give our guys and great deal of credit for ultimately finding their resolve, correcting what was going on out there, and then imposing their will into the game which led to the major turnaround we had in the first half.”
After allowing the Eagles to race out to the early lead, Lehigh held American to 18 of 45 shooting (40.0%). The Mountain Hawks sealed up the perimeter and showed why they’re holding opponents to 29.4% from three-point land this season. In addition, Lehigh made sure Lumpkins worked extremely hard for every point. Despite scoring 10 points and corralling 17 rebounds, the senior was consistently double teamed – even tripled teamed at times – once he touched the ball in the low post. As a result, Lumpkins’ 10 points were scored on as many shots. It was clearly a focus of Lehigh’s game plan.
“It’s not an easy thing to neutralize American’s big men,” said Reed. “Stephen Lumpkins is an excellent low post player. It took a total team effort to try to neutralize him as much as we could.”
Reed then added, “They have a strength, it’s not necessary been our strength, however we were able to survive especially with the right dynamics of trying to put the right people in right spots, and our guys bought in trying to make that happen.”
In all, nine Mountain Hawks scored in their hard fought 63-57 victory at American. While Greiner was an absolute nightmare for the Eagles in the first half, Lehigh was led by a bevy of players – most notably Mackey McKnight with his 11 points, six rebounds, five assists, and four steals – in the second half.
It was a collective team effort and illustrated why Lehigh knocked off Duke in the second round of last year’s NCAA tournament. C.J. McCollum may be the star, but with an excellent supporting cast of Greiner, McKnight, and Gabe Knutson (who had an off-night with only two points, three rebounds, three turnovers, and four personal fouls) around the future NBA pro, it’s reasonable to suggest that Lehigh could make it back to the NCAA tournament, even if McCollum doesn’t return from his broken foot until early to mid March.
In the meantime, Dr. Reed has been pleased with his team’s fight, character, and unselfishness since McCollum’s injury. On any given night, a number of players could step up. It’s an approach that will be instrumental to their future success.
Said Reed, “I think we have a number of players who could fulfill that role of a go-to-guy, however we have a number of players who are unselfish enough to be able to play off of each other.”
Lehigh heads home for a Saturday showdown with Colgate, before traveling to Bucknell for a much anticipated matchup with Mike Muscala and the Bison next Wednesday night. American will make the trek north to take on Holy Cross, before returning home next Wednesday to square off against Navy.
Ryan Peters covers mid-major college basketball for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow Ryan on Twitter @pioneer_pride