NEWARK, N.J. – Behind a career-high 33 points from senior Michael Ojo, the Lehigh men’s basketball team jumped out to an early lead and continued to hold off a number of NJIT comeback attempts, on its way to an up tempo 92-83 win on Tuesday evening. Twenty of Ojo’s points came in the first half to spark the Mountain Hawks early. Lehigh wraps up its non-league schedule with an identical 9-6 mark as last year, when it won its second Patriot League Championship in program history.
“Michael was sensational tonight,” said head coach Brett Reed. “He started off with a tremendously hot hand, while playing strong defense as well. For us to get offense from him is critical. It’s a testament of his hard work over his career.”
The story in the early going was Ojo, coupled with NJIT’s hot three-point shooting, which led to a 43-33 first-half lead. The Mountain Hawks continued to extend their double-digit advantage, but NJIT wouldn’t say die, pulling within single digits on numerous occasions. But Lehigh never let it get closer than six.
Along with Ojo’s career-high performance, senior David Safstrom also posted a career-high six. Ojo’s 33 points marked Lehigh’s fourth 30+ point effort of the season. It also gave him 500-career points as he entered the game only 20 away.
Sophomore C.J. McCollum finished the evening with 14 points, including 8-of-8 from the free throw line. Fellow sophomore Gabe Knutson also impressed with 16 points and five rebounds, while going 8-of-8 from the free throw line as well. Senior Prentice Small added 10 points and nine assists in his first start of the season.
The team’s 92 points broke the previous season-high of 91 at Marist. A trio of NJIT players finished with 15 or more points, led by 22 from Jheryl Wilson and 19 from Isiah Wilkinson.
Ojo was the story in the early going, connecting for 14 points within the first eight minutes, which included three made treys. That helped Lehigh jump out to an early double-digit lead less than 10 minutes into the first half. Ojo and Knutson combined for Lehigh’s first 11 points as two Ojo threes and a Knutson made jumper put the Mountain Hawks up 11-9 with 15:15 to go.
Lehigh then staged an 11-2 run capped off when junior Jordan Hamilton made a steal at center court and went all the way for the layup to put Lehigh up, 22-11, with 11:46 to go, forcing NJIT to call its second timeout of the half.
The Highlanders used hot three-point shooting to pull right back into the game as they outscored the Mountain Hawks, 20-10, over the next 6:24 to pull within 32-31 with 5:22 to go. Overall, NJIT hit its first seven three-pointers of an evening as the seventh, by Wilson, pulled the squad within 32-31, the closest it had been since it was 3-3.
The Mountain Hawks answered right back with a Rob Keefer three-pointer and Small fast break layup for some breathing room, 37-31. They eventually extended their run to 9-0 following two Ojo free throws for a 41-31 advantage.
NJIT pulled within 41-33 with five seconds remaining, but Small pushed the ball up court and found Ojo for a jumper, giving him 20 first-half points and his 500th career point as time expired in the half The 43 points also marked a season-high for first-half scoring.
Lehigh began the second half on a 7-2 run to open up a 50-35 lead, its largest of the evening. Four of those points came from Ojo to give him his career-high 24th point. NJIT wouldn’t go away, however, responding with a 9-0 run to pull within 50-44 with 14:20 to go.
The Mountain Hawks responded with a 7-0 run capped off by a Small three-pointer from the top of the key to put them back up 13, 57-44, with 12:15 to go.
NJIT wouldn’t go away, staging a 6-0 run to pull within 57-50 with 10:34 on the clock. Lehigh again extended the lead to 10 behind a strong stretch from Knutson, who scored six straight Mountain Hawk point in just over a minute.
Just when it looked like Lehigh would create separation, the pesky Highlanders continued to battle back, scoring five points in a 10 second span to pull within 70-63 with 5:15 on the clock. Safstrom broke the momentum with a big offensive rebound and putback to give Lehigh the nine-point advantage, 72-63.
The back and forth affair continued, with NJIT making a mini run before Lehigh responded. The Mountain Hawks hit their free throws down the stretch, though, to ice the 92-83 victory.
Lehigh finished 48 percent from the field (24-of-50) while NJIT shot 48 percent as well (28-of-58). The Highlanders finished 59 percent (10-of-17) from three-point range, including hitting their first seven while the Mountain Hawks were 41 percent (7-of-17) from long range. NJIT held the rebounding edge, 33-28
On a three-game winning streak and winners of five of their last six, the Mountain Hawks wrap up their three-game road trip on Saturday in a highly anticipated Patriot League opener at preseason favorite American.
“It’s nice to be playing good basketball at this time,” said Reed. “It’s important to continue to get better. We’re at a good point now and need to utilize what we’ve learned heading into Patriot League play.”
Lehigh will then return 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.