Action photo is (L-R) B.J. Bailey, Stefan Cvrkalj, Cameron Ayers and BrysonJohnson (Credit: Keith Gary)
When C.J. McCollum went down with a foot injury in the first half of Lehigh’s 59-55 loss to Virginia Commonwealth on Jan. 5, observers were ready to hand the Patriot League title to pre-season co-favorite Bucknell.
Not so fast my friends.
As the resilient Mountain Hawks demonstrated during that narrow loss to the Rams and proved again with Thursday night’s 65-62 road win over the Bison, Brett Reed’s squad is much more than a one-man show.
“We were building towards something and were building an identity with the style and system that we played that we weren’t going to all of the sudden change direction,” head coach Brett Reed said. “That isn’t what our program was about to begin with. C.J. is a very gifted and talented player, however, we have a team full of very good players.”
There were changes that were going to have to be made whether they had an NBA prospect in the lineup or not. This became evident in late December when McCollum netted 34 in a 80-79 home loss to Bryant.
Reed and the Mountain Hawks realized that their team could fill it up, but no longer would they set out merely trying to outscore their opponent. They would need to place greater emphasis on defense — a need that only increased once they lost the nation’s leading scorer from the lineup.
“Despite a painful loss — and that Bryant game was very disappointing for our program and team members — I think there was a silver lining to it,” Reed said. “We understood and had the chance to really value defense. We knew that we had lost that game because of our lack of defensive energy, intensity and determination. Since that time, they’ve been able to translate that lesson and apply it moving forward.”
Since the Bryant game, the Mountain Hawks have yielded more than 60 points once (Bucknell’s 62 on Thursday) and opponents are averaging only 52.7 points over that span of six contests.
Lehigh limited the Bison to 5-for-19 shooting from the floor over the first 14 minutes of the contest, seizing a 27-12 advantage and largely taking the orange-clad “Sojka Psychos” out of the game.
Bucknell made a run, closing the half on a 16-2 run over the final six minutes to close within 29-28.
“Basketball is always a game of spurts and teams go on runs,” junior guard B.J. Bailey said. “We knew they weren’t going to just give up — that’s not Bucknell basketball. We just tried to keep doing what we were doing.”
Lehigh star CJ McCollum takes in the action from the bench. His teammates have answered the bell in his absence. (Credit: Keith Gary)
For the Mountain Hawks, who are second in the nation in three-point field goal percentage at 43.4, that meant knocking down trifectas to the tune of 10-for-18 while holding the Bison to 2-for-14 from behind the arc. That 24 point differential more than proved to be the difference in the Patriot League showdown.
Bailey, who missed roughly the first six weeks of the season due to a concussion, has arrived as the “next man up” for the Mountain Hawks to shoulder some of the scoring load without McCollum. The junior from Mays Landing, N.J. scored a career-high 18 points on 4-for-4 shooting from downtown.
“We have been stressing in practice to try and come out strong out of the gate,” said senior forward Holden Greiner. “Try to jump on teams a little bit. In the past we have been lackadaisical when games start. When teams get leads on us it is a lot harder to fight back.”
Slow starts and falling behind early is something that Bucknell coach Dave Paulsen knows all too well and is growing a bit weary of and didn’t mince words about.
“You have to give alot of credit to Lehigh. B.J. Bailey was phenomenal — he hit some tough shots and Mackey McKnight was very good (17 points, 8 rebounds),” Paulsen said. “But I am really disappointed in the level of toughness from our team. To go on your home court and spot them a 15-point lead with defensive blunder after defensive blunder is just a disgrace.”
“It’s like a broken record, at some point it has to come from the internal leadership of the team,” Paulsen said. “If guys aren’t ready to focus and grab them by the throat and say we don’t want you on the court with us then some very good players — who have had very good careers — could have their careers end in a huge disappointment.”
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