Posted: March 11, 2009
BETHLEHEM, Pa. – Junior Alex Ross scored 21 points, including 20 in the first half, and Lehigh’s defense held Lafayette to just two points in the final three minutes as the Mountain Hawks downed the archrival Leopards 64-56 on Wednesday evening at Stabler Arena to win the 2009 Patriot League Women’s Basketball Championship. Ross sank 7-of-12 shots overall en route to being named the tournament MVP as she helped lead the Brown and White to its first PL Title since 1997.
With the win Lehigh continues its dream season and improves its record to 26-6 overall. Lafayette received a team-high 15 points from Emily Garner and finishes its season at 10-22.
“I just wanted this so much for our seniors,” Lehigh head coach Sue Troyan said. “I literally didn’t sleep the last three nights. I wanted those girls to experience this because they mean so much to our program.”
The Leopards took possession of the ball with a chance to take the lead with just more than two minutes remaining. Lehigh watched a double-digit lead dwindle to just one and the Lafayette faithful rose to their feet in anticipation. LaKeisha Wright took the ball in the paint, guarded by Tricia Smith, when Haly Crites doubled down on Wright and forced a travel. Smith came back down the other end and drove to the hole for a clutch layup to give Lehigh a 57-54 lead.
On the next possession Prosser found Gratch for a layup, putting Lehigh up 59-54 with just more than a minute left. Gratch sealed the ballgame on defense less than 30 seconds later by causing a held ball to give the Mountain Hawks possession back with less than 60 seconds to play.
As the final seconds ticked off the clock, the energetic crowd of 2,339 fans at Stabler Arena cheered in jubilation as Lehigh celebrated its second league title in school history.
“I could not hear a thing,” Ross said of the crowd. “It was a great atmosphere; probably the best I’ve ever been a part of.”
Senior center Melissa Rich gave Lehigh 14 points off the bench in 24 minutes. She also added four rebounds in the win. Ross led all scorers with her 21 points, adding four rebounds and two blocks in 37 minutes.
The Mountain Hawks took control of the game in the first half on the strength of the 3-pointer. Ross went 6-for-9 from downtown in the half and scored 20 of Lehigh’s 37 points, as the Mountain Hawks took a 37-27 lead into halftime. The Mountain Hawks went 7-for-11 as a team from the 3-point line in the first.
Ross hit her first three with 10:31 remaining in the half to give the Mountain Hawks a 15-12 lead and energize the crowd for the first time. Less than three minutes later, Lehigh blew up on an 11-0 run to take a double-digit lead, with Ross connecting on three more triples in the run. With her second 3-pointer of the day, Ross sank her 200th career shot from downtown, becoming just the second player in Lehigh history to accomplish that feat.
“We tried to get her the ball off some screens early,” sophomore guard Erica Prosser said. “I know when she gets hot she stays hot for a long time.”
When the dust settled, the Mountain Hawks held a 29-18 lead with less than five minutes remaining in the half on the court where they won 16-straight games before the championship.
“We wanted to come in and defend our home court,” Rich said. “One of our goals at the beginning of the season was to go undefeated at home and as it got more realistic, it meant a lot to us.”
A 3-pointer by Lauren Jackson pulled Lafayette to within eight points, but Ross answered again with her fifth trey of the night to extend the lead back to 32-21. The Leopards once again clawed back to a seven-point deficit, 34-27, with 45 seconds on the clock; and once again Ross teed up a three for her sixth of the night, giving her 20 points in the half and sending Lehigh into the locker room leading by 10.
Lehigh showed its nerves early in the game by struggling from the free throw line. The Mountain Hawks missed all eight attempts from the charity stripe in the first, and went 0-for-9 before Haly Crites sank a free throw in the second half.
The Leopards staged another comeback attempt in the second half, cutting the lead to 47-45 with less than 14 minutes remaining. Claire Sullivan fed Melissa Rich in the paint for a tough layup that momentarily settled the Lehigh nerves by putting the buffer back at four points, and Kristen Dalton hit back-to-back jumpers to give the Brown and White a 53-45 lead. Two free throws by Melissa Rich made it an 8-0 run for the Mountain Hawks and extended the lead to 10 points before Lafayette could answer again.
“It just goes back to the unselfishness they display,” Troyan said of how Rich and the seniors played in their final home game. “It’s easy to say you’re unselfish but they will do anything you ask them. That’s why we are in the position we are in.”
Lafayette did not go quietly into the Bethlehem night, bouncing back again with a 9-0 run to climb back within one point, 55-54, with less than four minutes remaining.
From there however the Lehigh “D” took over, limiting the Leopards to a single field goal the rest of the way and the Mountain Hawks got the job done at the foul line, sinking 5-of-6 to clinch the championship. Lehigh finishes the season a perfect 17-0 on its home floor at Stabler Arena.
“I thought it was a hard fought game on both sides,” Troyan said. “Both sides really left everything out on the floor. Honestly, we’re fortunate to be on this end because Lafayette gave us everything we could handle.”
Lehigh will now wait to learn its NCAA Tournament fate. The women’s selection show will air live on ESPN on Monday, March 16 beginning at 7:00.
“It’s amazing,” Prosser said. “It’s just been a great year. I’m really proud of our team. We set our goals in the preseason and we met every one of them. It’s just awesome.”
2009 Patriot League All-Tournament Team
Nalini Hawkins, Army
LaKeisha Wright, Lafayette
Emily Garner, Lafayette
Erica Prosser, Lehigh
Melissa Rich, Lehigh
Patriot League Tournament MVP
Alex Ross, Lehigh
Post Patriot League Championship Locker Room Celebration
Post-Game Press Conference
Watch the Lehigh - Lafayette Post-Game Extra