KENT, Ohio – Sophomore C.J. McCollum scored a career-high 42 points in front of many friends and family, but it wasn’t enough as the Lehigh men’s basketball team dropped a hard-fought 80-75 final at Kent State on Friday evening. A native of nearby Canton, Ohio, McCollum became the first Mountain Hawk (2-3) to score 40 or more points in a game since Joe Knight in 2005.
In one of the top single-game performances in all of NCAA Basketball this season, McCollum fell only eight short of breaking the school’s single-game scoring record and becoming Lehigh’s first-ever player to score 50 in a game.
A highly competitive affair featured 11 ties and 22 lead changes, with neither side holding more than a six-point advantage. Kent State, ranked No. 16 in the CollegeInsider.com Mid-Major Top 25 improves to 6-1, this after winning the Mid-American Conference Regular Season Championship last season.
McCollum’s 42 points came on 15-of-25 shooting, 3-of-7 from three-point range and 9-of-11 from the free throw line. He scored 38 of his 42 points in the game’s final 28:12 after scoring only four in the first 11:38.
"It felt great to come back and play in front of my home crowd," said McCollum. "I was pretty excited. I spoke to my brother before the game, who just said to relax. Just control my energy and turn it into a positive."
"It was a hard-fought game featuring two teams who were very hungry," said head coach Brett Reed. "In the end, Kent State’s aggressiveness with the dribble penetration and getting to the free throw line was the difference, despite the terrific effort from C.J."
Freshman Mackey McKnight had a strong game with nine points and career-high six assists. Sophomore Gabe Knutson posted nine points and nine rebounds, falling just short of his first-career double-double. Seniors Rob Keefer and Michael Ojo each added six apiece.
The Mountain Hawks took as much as a three-point lead in the early going behind strong rebounding from Knutson and junior Justin Maneri, who was making his first-career start. They combined for five rebounds over the first five minutes. Knutson added four points over the first 4:13 to propel Lehigh up by an 11-8 count with 15:47 left in the first half.
The teams continued their back and forth play, which included five ties and eight lead changes over the next 12:10, until McCollum took control in the final minutes of the first half. He scored seven points over the last 2:08 to help turn a three-point deficit into a three-point lead (41-38) heading into the locker room. That kept Lehigh’s streak alive of leading at the half in every game this season.
Kent State came out of the locker room with a vengeance, scoring six of the first eight points of the second half to retake a 44-43 advantage with 16:30 left on the clock. McCollum continued his hot play as well to give Lehigh the lead again only seven seconds later.
It looked like the Golden Flashes would start running away with the game when Justin Manns slammed home an offensive rebound to give them their largest lead at the time at 55-51, with 10:19 remaining.
Lehigh wouldn’t quit, however, evening the score for a 10th time less than two minutes later on a McCollum driving layup to make it 56-56 with 8:33 left, forcing Kent State to call timeout
Kent State opened up its largest lead of the game off an 8-2 run capped off by a three-pointer from Randal Holt. That made it 64-58 with 6:53 to go. But as quickly as they tied it, the Mountain Hawks evened the score once again off a 7-1 run of their own, which included a made jumper and three-pointer from McCollum on consecutive possessions, and a layup from Knutson to make it 65-65 with 5:16 left in regulation.
The Golden Flashes again opened up a six point lead at 72-66 with 2:41 to go. Lehigh slowly chipped away to pull as close as one, but couldn’t force the game’s 12th tie.
With less than a minute remaining and Kent State leading, 74-72, the Mountain Hawks made a big defensive stop, which gave McCollum a chance at the offensive end. He was called for pushing off to gain separation on a jump shot, leading to the tough offensive foul call with 24 seconds on the clock.
After Justin Greene made two free throws, McCollum answered with a long, off-balance three-pointer to pull Lehigh back within 76-75 with 15 seconds to go. Greene again hit two free throws to put Kent State up by three, but McCollum and the Mountain Hawks still had one last chance to tie. His three-pointer with less than 10 seconds left was long, however, to clinch the victory for Kent State.
"Playing in front of friends and family is a special experience [for C.J.]," said Reed. "He has the tendency to rise to the occasion. He kept his composure in touch situations and came up with a big performance."
Lehigh shot 45 percent (29-for-65) and 28 percent (5-for-18) from three-point range. Kent State finished at 39 percent (23-for-59) from the field and 23 percent (3-for-13) from long range. The Golden Flashes won the battle of the boards, 46-34, while getting to the line 42 times to only 18 for the Mountain Hawks. A foul-filled game saw 27 called on Lehigh and only 18 on Kent State.
The Mountain Hawks return home on Sunday to host Bryant University at 7 p.m. They then travel to defending America East Champion Stony Brook on Wednesday before returning home to host Atlantic 10 foe Fordham in a Saturday evening showdown at Stabler. 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.