Lafayette vanquishes Lehigh, will face Bucknell for Patriot League Championship
Published: Sunday, March 10, 2013
Updated: Sunday, March 10, 2013 00:03
If the Leopards were feeling any pressure before Saturday’s Patriot League semifinal against Lehigh, they didn’t show it. The Lafayette basketball squad was visibly loose as they went through their pregame warmups with a packed Kirby Sports Center behind them.
The Mountain Hawks, on the other hand, were stern and straight-laced as they tried to avoid a third loss to the Leopards.
The stone faces didn’t help the Brown and White, who succumbed to Tony Johnson ‘13 and his supporting cast 82-69. Johnson led the Leopards with 24 points while also tallying team highs in both rebounds (eight) and assists (five). Lehigh’s Mackey McKnight ‘14 went toe-to-toe with Johnson, notching 22 points of his own.
Lehigh (21-9 overall, 10-4 Patriot League) made things tense for Leopard fans early on. Still missing star point guard and NBA hopeful C.J. McCollum ‘13, who suffered a broken foot in January, the Mountain Hawks managed to jump out to a quick 7-0 lead in the first three minutes of play.
The momentum shifted in Lafayette’s favor around the 13-minute mark. After a McKnight layup put the Mountain Hawks up 13-7, Johnson pushed the ball quickly up court and found freshman Bryce Scott underneath the basket.
Scott was surrounded by Lehigh defenders, but managed to catch the ball, twist his body away from the basket, and throw a dazzling over-the-shoulder pass to Seth Hinrichs ‘15 for a layup. The play put Lafayette fans on their feet and sparked a 21-6 run.
Lehigh made things interesting later on, cutting the deficit to two before the half. When Lafayette (19-14, 10-4) extended their lead yet again to a game-high 16 point difference, the Mountain Hawks clawed their way back to within five at the 3-minute checkpoint.
“Seemed like a heavyweight battle there,” Lafayette Head Coach Fran O’Hanlon said. “We go up, and then they come roaring back.”
Foul shots made the difference from that point on. With both teams in the double bonus, Lafayette sunk all eight of their subsequent free throws to put the game away.
Appropriately, it was Johnson who logged the last points of the game. The senior has carried the team on his back over the course of their now seven-game winning streak, averaging over 21 points per contest during the stretch.
O’Hanlon said there were two keys to the victory: “We shoot fouls very well, and we had Tony.”
“Unbelievable impact,” Lehigh Head Coach Brett Reed said of Johnson. “He has been such a dominant player, from scoring the basketball to setting up his teammates.”
O’Hanlon’s earlier comparison to a heavyweight fight was a fitting analogy. It was a physical matchup for the entirety of the contest, with more than a few scraps for loose balls.
One such moment came late in the second half, when Scott and Lehigh’s B.J. Bailey ‘14 contested a loose ball. The scrap, which started at the top of the key on Lehigh’s end and ended on Lafayette’s side of the court, resulted in Bailey getting called for his fifth and final foul. It also put Scott at the charity stripe, where he sank both free throws.
The Lehigh players commended Lafayette’ effort.
“They just wanted it more,” McKnight said. “They were flying around, they were tipping, getting deflections, and even if one guy would touch the ball and he missed it, another guy would come flying in. That’s what you want to see from a team, and they had a lot of hustle.”
Hinrichs pitched in 18 points, sophomore Dan Trist added 13, Scott 12, and Joey “JP3” Ptasinski ‘15 nailed three long treys to pour in nine.
But there is no doubt that it was Johnson’s show.
When Lehigh cut the Leopard lead to five, Johnson showed no signs of nervousness. Instead, he took a long scan of the Lafayette crowd and smiled, as if he was assuring the Leopard faithful, “Don't worry, I got this.”
“I was actually pretty excited when they [cut the lead],” Johnson said. “Obviously, you don’t want to play that way, but I love those moments. You kind of really see what players you’re playing with in those moments. It’s so much fun at that point.”
Trist described the senior point guard as a “calming presence.”
“When Tony’s out there, it’s like the ship’s going in the right direction,” the sophomore forward said. “We can come back from any deficit, and we can hold any lead. I feel supremely confident when Tony’s on the floor.”
The win makes Lafayette 8-0 for Patriot League Tournament games at home, but they won’t have the luxury of Kirby Sports Center for the championship.
No. 1 Bucknell got a win of their own on Saturday, defeating Army 78-70 to host their third PL Championship in three years.