Lafayette 81, Lehigh 76

(Originally posted: Saturday, 4:55 p.m.)

EASTON, Pa. – We can’t take full credit for predicting this one. Yes we called it way back at the start of conference play, saying Lafayette looked like a team that would get better throughout the season and would knock somebody off in Kirby that would have a big impact on the standings.

After seeing the Leopards against Holy Cross at the end of January, we sort of backed off that prediction. Lafayette just didn’t look like it could take care of the ball well enough, or defend well enough, to get it done against the upper echelon teams.

Had we stuck to that call all season long, though, we’d sure be feeling pretty good about our prognostication skills right about now in the aftermath of Lafayette’s 81-76 win over Lehigh. After all, this one, along with last week’s Lafayette home win over American, certainly fulfilled our prophecy.

Truth be told, though, there is no way we would have predicted how Lafayette won this one. That it came as the result of big offensive afternoons by Sean Knitter and Jamaal Douglas is no big surprise. After all, they are Lafayette’s two top scorers.

That Douglas and Knitter shared scoring honors for Lehigh with 16 points each was no shocker. Where those points came from was. Especially for Douglas. Coming into the game, the 6-6 power forward had taken 37 three-pointers. Seven other Leopards had tried more from outside the arc, and all of them had a better percentage than Douglas’ 27-percent.

Maybe that had something to do with why Lehigh left him alone at the top of the arc late in the first half after the Leopards early 10-point lead had been erased. Lafayette had gone over eight minutes with just one field goal, falling behind 26-24 after once holding a 22-12 advantage. Even though a pair of free throws by Jamaal Hilliard and a bucket by Marcus Harley put the Leopards back on top, 29-26, the momentum had swung well to the Lehigh side.

Then Douglas caught the ball at the top of the arc, squared up and fired. Less than a minute later he did it again, this time pulling up off the dribble with :05 left in the half to send Lafayette to the break with a 35-26 lead.

“That was a great momentum builder going into the half,” said Lehigh coach Billy Taylor. “Back-to-back threes, 6 quick points and we go in down 9.”

Douglas was not done. Early in the second half, after Lehigh went on a short 8-0 run to cut Lafayette’s 13-point lead to 41-36, Douglas did it again, draining another three to stem the Mountain Hawks tide.

“That was huge,” said Knitter, who picked up where Douglas left off (more on that later).

“I was open. I took shots,” said Douglas who had never made more than two treys in one game before in his career. “I just took shots and luckily they went in.”

Douglas’ third three-pointer started an 8-2 spurt that pushed Lafayette’s lead back into double figures. The other 5 points came from Knitter, the last three on an NBA-range three-pointer. That was not a surprise. Despite being known more for his power in the paint, the 6-8 Knitter came in having made 28 treys, tied for second on the team and only Harley had put up more than Knitter’s 88 tries.

Knitter did it again a short time later, again pushing Lafayette’s lead back to double digits after Lehigh had gotten it down to 8. At that point, with Lafayette up 54-44, 10 minutes to go against a defense-oriented Lehigh team that has struggled to score 60 points a game this season, Lafayette seemed to smell the blood in the water. And when the Leopards built the lead to 70-56 with three minutes to play, some of the 3,500 in Kirby started filing out while the Zoo Crew serenaded Lehigh with the old “warm up the bus” standby.

Something warmed up alright, but it was not the bus, it was its passengers. Lehigh started pressing after every made bucket and Lafayette had a world of trouble closing it out. With 1:03 to go and a 75-65 lead, Lafayette seemed safe. Then the Mountain Hawks scored 9 unanswered points in less than 30 seconds and all of a sudden it was a 75-74 game.

Lafayette freshman Bilal Abdullah hit a pair of free throws with 35.8 on the clock to push the lead back to three, forcing Lehigh to go for a three-pointer to tie the game on its next possession. The Mountain Hawks got the shot they wanted. In fact they got it twice when Earl Nurse grabbed the rebound of Jose Olivero’s wide-open miss and got the ball back to Joe Knight, who had a good look from the top of the key.

But in a game where Lehigh made just 3-of-20 from three-point range, including 1-for-7 by both Knight and Olivero, it was not to be. And when Lafayette got the ball into the hands of Hilliard, a 90-percent free throw shooter, on its last two inbounds plays, the outcome was predictable. Hilliard made all four shots, wrapped around an uncontested Jason Mgebroff layup for Lehigh, sealing the win.

In many ways, the game was a microcosm of Lehigh’s season. Expected to contend for the league title, the Mountain Hawks have as much talent as anybody in the league, especially on the perimeter. But the Hawks’ effort in this one was inconsistent, as it has been all season long.

“We have played well in a number of games and a number of stretches during games,” said Taylor. “But we haven’t been able to put it all together.”

A perfect example of that is Lehigh’s scoring output in its last two games. After struggling offensively all season, the Mountain Hawks posted a season-high 75 points last week against Navy and bettered that by 1 in this game.

At the same time, though, one of the league’s stingiest defenses all season allowed Navy to score 76, the most Lehigh had given up before letting Lafayette to score 81.

After allowing just two teams to score 70 points in its first 23 games, Lehigh has now given up more than 70 in three of its last four. Predictably, the Mountain Hawks are 0-4 in that stretch.

The loss sends Lehigh to Worcester for the first round of the Patriot League Tournament. The Mountain Hawks are locked into the 4-5 game regardless of the outcome of any other Saturday games.

Lafayette will be In Lewisburg to face the No. 2 host Bucknell Bison in Friday night’s first round..
Box score | Lafayette recap | Lehigh recap | AP wrap | Morning Call story | Express-Times story

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