Posted: 03/07/2012 | Last updated: June 13, 2012 at 12:31 PM
LEWISBURG, Pa. – For the second time in three years the Lehigh men’s basketball team is headed to the NCAA Tournament as the Mountain Hawks withstood a late Bucknell charge to down the Bison 82-77 Wednesday night at Sojka Pavilion. Junior C.J. McCollum led the Mountain Hawks with 29 points, while classmate Gabe Knutson added a season-high 23 as Lehigh won its third Patriot League tournament crown and punched its fifth ticket to the NCAA tournament.
“It's tremendously exciting because it was such a hard fought victory,” said Lehigh head coach Brett Reed. “There were two excellent teams competing hard against each other but I couldn't be more proud of our student-athletes; young men who have really bonded together, sacrificed a great deal and because of that, now reap the rewards.
Reed continued, “We knew it wouldn't be an easy venue to play in by any means however our previous win here gave us confidence. Fortunately, we were able to get some outstanding play and competed with a lot of energy and that was really the difference. Bucknell continued to battle and fight, they are an excellent team. We are very fortunate to come away with the victory.”
In a game that was tight throughout, the Mountain Hawks never trailed. Lehigh withstood a game-high 30 points and 14 rebounds from Bucknell’s Mike Muscala to improve to 26-7 on the season. McCollum put Lehigh up by seven on a jumper with 1:37 to play, but the Bison battled back, creeping within a point with 36 seconds to play after back-to-back three pointers by Bryson Johnson.
Sophomore Mackey McKnight missed a pair of free throws giving the Bison one final possession, but Knutson blocked Ayres’ layup with eight seconds remaining and McCollum grabbed the rebound. McCollum converted two free throws and senior Jordan Hamilton stole the ensuing inbounds pass and made two free throws of his own to extend the lead to five. Johnson’s desperation heave fell short and the Mountain Hawks flooded the Sojka Pavilion floor in celebration.
“Bucknell made some tremendous plays down the stretch,” Reed said. “They capitalized from the three-point line and put themselves in a position in the last possession which could have changed the outcome of the game. We got the stop when we needed to and credit our team for not giving up, not giving up hope and still staying with it.”
Senior Jordan Hamilton got the scoring started just less than a minute into the game. Then, after a C.J. McCollum basket, a Joe Willman jumper pulled the Bison within 4-3. Lehigh answered with four in a row, first via a Gabe Knutson jumper then a Knutson offensive rebound and put back, to make it 8-3 with 16:04 on the clock.
Bryson Johnson knocked down a three to pull Bucknell within 8-6, but Lehigh responded with a 6-0 run to open its largest lead of the first half. Knutson converted a three-point play, scoring Lehigh’s seventh straight point, before Mackey McKnight hit a three off a nice feed from McCollum, to make it 14-6 with 14:14 remaining.
However, the Bison responded with a quick 9-1 run to pull even at 15 following a Mike Muscala layup with 11:40 to go. Sophomore B.J. Bailey ended the run with a trey to help Lehigh regain the lead. Lehigh went on to open a six-point, 21-15, advantage following a McCollum three-point play with 10:03 remaining.
The Mountain Hawks slowly reopened their lead, eventually opening up an 11-point, 36-25 advantage after a McKnight three-pointer with 3:48 remaining. However, Bucknell knocked down nine free throws to end the half to pull within seven (41-34) after 20 minutes. The Bison didn’t hit a field goal for the final 5:58, but Bucknell converted their free throws to stay within three possessions. The Bison pulled as close as five, but McCollum hit a pair from the charity stripe with six seconds on the clock for the seven-point halftime advantage.
Lehigh shot an impressive 50 percent in the first half (15-of-30) and 56 percent from three-point range (5-of-9) while the Bison were 42 percent (10-of-24) and 43 percent from long distance (3-of-7). The Mountain Hawks held a 16-15 edge on the glass over the first 20 minutes.
Knutson began where he left off in the first, scoring on the first possession of the second half to make it 43-34, but Bucknell scored 16 of the next 23 points to even the score at 50 following a Brian Fitzpatrick free throw with 13:12 remaining. Cameron Ayers scored five points as part of the run while Muscala added six.
McCollum quickly broke the tie with a short jumper on the end to make it 52-50. Lehigh extended the run to 9-0 after a pair of Justin Maneri layups off nice feeds from McCollum. Then John Adams extended the run to 9-0 with a three at the top of the key for a 59-50 lead with 9:37 on the clock.
Bucknell quickly stormed back, posting a 6-0 run behind Muscala free throws, a Joe Willman deuce and two Ayers free throws to make it 59-56 with 8:24 remaining. A Muscala layup pulled the Bison within 64-62, but Knutson knocked down a big trey from the top of the key for a five-point, 67-62 lead with 4:54 on the clock.
Every time the Bison made a run in the second half, McCollum seemed to have an answer. With Lehigh up by three with under three minutes to play, McCollum was fouled shooting a three-pointer and converted all three free throws, then added a fall away jumper to give Lehigh a seven point advantage. From there the Mountain Hawks withstood the late Bison charge to become the first road team to win a Patriot League title game since Bucknell won at Holy Cross in 2005.
“He’s a prime time player,” Reed said of McCollum, who was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player. “He not only scores, but makes players around him better. He makes key plays in pressure situations offensively and defensively with his leadership. I couldn’t be more proud of him and more happy for him, he’s such an amazing and tremendous person and athlete.”
For the game the Mountain Hawks shot 50 percent (28-of-56) and were 7-of-15 from beyond the three point arc. Bucknell shot 42 percent (23-of-55) and were 6-of-13 from deep. The Bison also stayed in the game by converting 25-of-31 free throws. Bucknell also enjoyed a 35-28 advantage on the boards.
Knutson was Lehigh’s top rebounder with seven, while McCollum added three caroms and a game-high five assists to his 29 points. McKnight was the third Mountain Hawk to reach double figures with 11.
McKnight and Knutson represented Lehigh on the All-Tournament team. Reed offered his thoughts on the play of his junior forward.
“I thought Gabe’s contribution especially in the first half was so critical to our success,” Reed explained. “We were able to establish our interior presence and it opens up the perimeter and gives us balance. All that’s important if you are going to be a successful team, especially against a strong defensive team like Bucknell.”
Lehigh will now wait to learn its NCAA Tournament fate on Sunday evening. The Mountain Hawks will gather to watch the NCAA Tournament selection show, which begins at 6:00 on Sunday and is shown live nationwide on CBS.
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