NEW HAVEN, Conn. – The Lehigh men’s basketball team will enter 2011 winners of four of its last five as the Mountain Hawks (8-6) pulled out a hard-fought 62-57 New Year’s Eve victory at Yale on Friday. Three Mountain Hawks finished in double figures in scoring, led by 16 from sophomore C.J. McCollum and 13 from senior Michael Ojo and freshman Mackey McKnight.
“We had to compete at a very high level to walk away with a win today,” said head coach Brett Reed. “Yale is a very disciplined team, who defends well.”
The win came over a Bulldogs’ squad which has hung tough against some of the nation’s best this season. Despite entering with a 5-6 record, Yale defeated Boston College out of the ACC, while also falling by single digits against Providence and Quinnipiac.
McCollum finished with 16 points, three rebounds and two big assists, including one in the final minute to set up sophomore Holden Greiner for an easy layup. The Mountain Hawks improve to 8-1 when McCollum leads the way in scoring.
McKnight was the story early in each half, finishing 5-of-8 from the field and 2-of-3 from three-point range. Sophomore Gabe Knutson also added nine points and a team-high eight rebounds.
Leading by 11 in the second half, Yale stormed back to eventually even the score at 47, but the Mountain Hawks never relinquished the lead.
“We didn’t expect them to go away,” said Reed. “All of a sudden, Willhite hit some three-pointers. Threes can really change the momentum considerably.”
Three Bulldogs finished in double figures, led by 11 from Austin Morgan.
A strong Mountain Hawk defense allowed only 57 points to tie a season-best.
“Possession by possession, the ball pressure we put on coupled with defending the interior [was critical],” said Reed. “The balance of both those things made our defense very strong.”
Lehigh jumped out to an early 6-2 lead due in large part to McKnight, who scored five points in the game’s first 2:55. With 18:57 on the clock, he hit a contested three-pointer with the shot clock running down before making a nice move in the lane and finishing a short jumper with 17:05 remaining.
With the Mountain Hawks up 17-11 midway through the half, Yale responded with a quick 7-0 run, taking only 1:15 to take an 18-17 lead.
Knutson broke the run with a nice post move and layup with 7:18 remaining in the half. That propelled Lehigh to a 7-0 run of its own, which included five straight points from McCollum in just over a minute of game action. His first field goal of the day came with 5:33 to go on a long bounce pass from senior Prentice Small, who found the sophomore ahead on the break.
Small continued to create offensive chances as he set up senior David Safstrom for an easy layup to make it 27-22 Lehigh with 3:39 remaining.
The Mountain Hawks only scored two points the rest of the half, but their defense bore down, allowing them to take a 29-25 advantage into the locker room. In total, they held the Bulldogs to only one point over the final 2:20, including one scoreless stretch of 1:54.
McKnight got off to a nearly equally hot start in the second, scoring five points in the first 1:47 to help Lehigh gain its first double-digit lead of the game, 38-27. Overall, the Mountain Hawks began the half on a 9-2 run spanning the first 2:22.
Yale responded with an 8-0 run to pull within 38-35 with 15:18 remaining, which included two straight three-pointers from Reggie Willhite.
Lehigh responded once again, scoring nine of the next 11 points to re-open a double-digit advantage. It was capped off by a clean steal from McCollum, who went in all the way for the layup and was fouled. He completed the three-point play to put Lehigh back up 47-37 with 10:57 remaining.
Yale came right back with a furious 10-0 run over the next 3:58 as a Michael Grace three-pointer evened the score at 47.
The Mountain Hawks answered once again with two straight jumpers - by Ojo and McCollum - to go up 51-47 with 5:55 remaining. Ojo then hit a big three-pointer to give Lehigh some breathing room, putting the Mountain Hawks up 56-49 with 3:33 on the clock.
Yale pulled to within one with 1:16 to go, but on the ensuing possession, McCollum fought out of a double team to find Greiner in the lane for the easy layup, putting Lehigh up 58-55 with 48 seconds remaining.
Ojo and McCollum each hit a pair of free throws down the stretch to ice the 62-57 victory.
Lehigh shot 42 percent (20-of-48) from the field, 33 percent (4-of-12) from three-point range, while Yale shot 44 percent (20-of-46) and 29 percent (6-of-21) from long range. The Bulldogs held the 35-27 rebounding edge.
The Mountain Hawks continue their three-game road trip at NJIT on Jan. 4 (7 p.m.) before the Patriot League opener at American on Jan. 8. Lehigh returns home on Jan. 12 to host Navy at 7 p.m. 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.