Jasper Wilson (@wilson_jasper)
Lehigh pulled away from Robert Morris early in the first half and never relinquished its lead Monday night for its first win of the season.
Playing at the Petersen Events Center on the campus of University of Pittsburgh as part of the NIT preseason tipoff, Lehigh illustrated the difference between a team that has made the NCAA tournament, and one that aspires to get there, winning with ease 89-60.
When the Mountain Hawks (1-1) lost handily at No. 16/17 Baylor on Friday, 99-77, star senior guard C.J. McCollum led all scorers with 36 points. In this game, though he had a game-high 15 points, he also had help from a number of his teammates in dispatching the opposition, four of whom had double-digit scoring efforts.
Just over four minutes into the game, Lehigh took a 9-8 lead on a McCollum layup and stayed in front the rest of the way.
Sophomore Stefan Cvrkalj made a difference early off the bench, as he was perfect from behind the arc making all three of his attempts in the first half, leading his team with nine points in the period. He would finish with 11.
Robert Morris coach Andrew Toole lamented his team’s inability to stop the shooter in the early going.
“When they make six of their 12 threes in the first half, and its a simple scouting report that you know Cvrkalj is a catch-and-shoot that you’ve got to close out hard and you can’t let him make threes and he does… that really hurts your chances of winning,” Toole said.
The difference between the two squads was most apparent with three point conversion. In the first half the Colonials (0-2) struggled immensely, shooting 1-for-10 from distance. Lehigh made half of its attempts, going 6-for-12.
The Mountain Hawks held a 38-23 advantage at half despite McCollum having scored just eight points.
That defensive effort by Lehigh was the product of Friday’s lopsided outcome according to senior Gabe Knutson, who played 27 minutes after missing the season-opening loss as he worked his way back from a minor knee injury.
“(We had) a sense of urgency on defense,” he said. “We were embarrassed at Baylor. We weren’t happy about that. Obviously, coach wasn’t happy about that. We knew we had to step it up.”
Knutson, who finished with 12 points, attributed his team’s balanced scoring to a conscious, shared mindset amongst his teammates.
“We were really unselfish today. Everybody just played their own style and worked with each other,” Knutson said.
In addition to Knutson, McCollum and Cvrkalj, Lehigh got a solid performance from junior point guard Mackey McKnight, who had 15 points, hitting 4-of-5 from the floor, including his only 3-point attempt, to go along with seven assists and four rebounds. Anthony D’Orazio, the Mountain Hawks’ fifth starter as B.J. Bailey recovers from a minor injury of his own, had nine points.
In the second half, when RMU did string together a good offensive possession or two, its opponent would counter, thus keeping the deficit from shrinking.
One sequence that was emblematic of the losing team’s failure to even partially make up the difference occurred midway through the second half when Robert Morris’ Anthony Meyers-Pate drove baseline and hit a mid range floater to beat the shot clock only to have Lehigh quickly inbound to a streaking McCollum who connected with a smooth jumper from the right elbow.
“We knew we were a better team than what we were at Baylor and we just had to show it,” Knutson said.
With the win, Lehigh will face Pitt here tonight at 9 P.M to decide who will travel to Madison Square Garden next week.
McCollum was named the Patriot League’s player of the week on Monday for his 36 point effort against #16/17 Baylor on Friday. After averaging 27.5 points in the team’s first two games, the preseason All-American now needs 96 points to break the Patriot League’s career scoring mark of 2,224 set by Holy Cross’ Rob Feaster (1991-1995). He is a two-time defending conference player of the year.