WEST LONG BRANCH, N.J. – Despite leading by nine at the half and by four with less than a minute to play, the Lehigh men’s basketball team fell victim to a late Monmouth surge, dropping a 69-68 final on Friday evening. With the score tied in the final minute, a loose-ball foul called on senior Michael Ojo with only 1.1 seconds remaining sent James Hett to the line, where he hit one of two to all but seal the victory. Ojo finished the night with a career-high 23 points in his first action of the season.
"This was a winnable game for us on the road," said head coach Brett Reed. "It’s unfortunate we couldn’t convert. There were some tough breaks, but we created our own destiny in the end."
A game of runs saw Monmouth jump out to an early eight-point lead before Lehigh surged ahead by nine at the half. Monmouth jumped out to another lead early in the second, but the Mountain Hawks pulled ahead by as much as six (65-59) with 3:38 left to play. The Hawks responded with 10 of the game’s final 13 points to steal the victory.
With the score tied at 68, sophomore C.J. McCollum had a good look from the top of the key. A long rebound headed in the direction of Ojo, but a foul was called on the senior captain, putting Hett on the line with only 1.1 seconds remaining.
"We had the ball in our best player’s hands," said Reed. "He was in a good rhythm and is a good one-on-one player. A tough [foul] call at that stage with the game decided in that manner, but the referee was right on the play so I assume he got it right. Nevertheless, it was a tough one to swallow."
Ojo led the offensive attack with his career scoring night, which included 8-of-13 shooting and 5-of-9 from behind the three-point arc. He also added seven rebounds to fall just one shy of his career-high in that category. McCollum chipped in with 19 points, including 12 in the second half. Sophomore Gabe Knutson also added 12 along with six boards.
Monmouth jumped out to a quick 14-6 lead with 14:45 still to go in the first half, but Ojo spearheaded Lehigh’s three-point barrage from that point forward. The Mountain Hawks responded with a 18-2 run over the next 8:34 to take an eight-point lead of its own, 24-16, with 6:14 still remaining.
As part of that run, the Mountain Hawks hit six three-pointers, five from behind the arc and one via the old fashioned variety. Ojo hit three treys while freshman Anthony D’Orazio and junior John Adams also hit from long distance. McCollum got the scoring started with an unconventional three-point play with 12:54 to go; he had a clear path to the hoop from mid-court and finished the layup despite the contact.
The momentum continued in Lehigh’s favor as it went on to open as much as a nine-point advantage behind the energized play from Ojo, who continued to impress. He finished an emphatic dunk of a Holden Greiner missed three-pointer with a highlight-reel one-handed slam to put the Mountain Hawks up 26-18 with 5:43 until halftime.
The teams traded baskets the rest of the way and Lehigh took its largest lead of the half into the break. In the end, Lehigh held Monmouth with only 13 points over the final 14:45 after giving up 14 in the first 5:15. As part of that run came a span of 8:34 in which it only allowed two points and 10:19 where it only allowed four.
The second half was much like the first, with Monmouth, scoring the first eight points to pull within 36-35 with 17:20 left to play. Monmouth took its first lead since early in the first, extending its advantage to as much as seven (54-47) with 8:42 left to play.
Lehigh responded with an 18-5 run to retake a 65-59 with 3:38 remaining in regulation. In that run, McCollum scored eight straight Mountain Hawk points to take over the game.
With the game in the final stages, McCollum made what looked to be a crucial block of Marcus Ware with less than two minutes to play to preserve a 65-63 Lehigh advantage. On the other end, Knutson had a put-back score of a McCollum miss to give the Mountain Hawks a 67-63 lead with only 56 seconds left in regulation.
Monmouth got a big three-pointer by Hett with 38 seconds to go, while Mike Keitt hit two free-throws with 17 seconds remaining. That set up the game’s final possession, when McCollum missed from the top of the key, leading up to the loose-ball foul which sent Hett to the line.
Lehigh finished the evening shooting 49 percent from the field, 36 percent from behind the three-point arc. Monmouth shot 47 percent and 37 percent from long range, while also winning the battle of the boards, 33-28.
The Mountain Hawks will return home on Monday to host defending Ivy League Champion and Sweet 16 participant Cornell at 7 p.m. They then hit the road next Friday to face defending Mid-American Regular Season Champion Kent State. Tickets for all home games are now on sale and may be purchased on Lehighsports.com or by calling the ticket office at (610) 7LU-GAME.