By Paul Gotham
BETHLEHEM, PA — The look suggested an opportunity lost, but nothing more. For the second time in as many games, Lehigh’s Mountain Hawks dug a second half double-digit deficit only to falter with victory in reach.
A Cameron Ayers layup as the shot clock expired sealed a 61-55 win for the Bucknell Bison and sent Lehigh’s to its second consecutive defeat. Monday’s loss dropped Lehigh from first place in the Patriot League with just three games remaining before the conference tournament.
Just don’t expect the Mackey McKnight to give up on his team.
“I don’t think it’s a devastating loss,” McKnight said. “I think it’s something we definitely need to learn from. ”
Down by 11 with less nine minutes to go in the game, the Mountain Hawks cut the deficit to three with 51 seconds remaining before Ayers finished the scoop shot in traffic.
Less than a month after grabbing the conference lead with a 65-62 triumph at Bucknell, Lehigh could not defend its own court.
“We came out at Bucknell strong. We threw the first punch,” McKnight explained. “We came out ready to play. We kind of just faded away from it after that. We got comfortable. We got happy.”
McKnight scored 17 in the victory hitting three-of-five behind the arc and going four-of-four from the free throw line. As a team the Mountain Hawks nailed 10-of-18 from long range.
Monday night, Lehigh managed to hit just one-of-15 treys.
“If I would have told you that we shot six-for-15 from the free throw line and one-for-15 from three, and say that we’d be right there in the game, you’d laugh at me,” said Lehigh head coach Brett Reed. “Yet we were one or two possessions from winning the game.”
McKnight tallied 17 more points Monday. He and teammate Holden Greiner paced Lehigh to a pair of comebacks in the contest.
McKnight sparked a 6-0 run to close the first half as the Mountain Hawks erased an eight-point deficit and took their first lead of the game. The junior guard finished a drive in the lane to cut Bucknell’s lead to three at 23-20.
On the next trip, McKnight and Gabe Knutson combined on a pick-and-roll in transition for the deuce. McKnight capped the run when Greiner grabbed a loose ball and led him into the open floor for a layup and a 24-23 halftime count.
But the Mountain Hawks responded.
Led by an 11-point outburst from Greiner, Lehigh had a chance to tie the game in the closing moments.
Greiner started with a runner in the lane. Then he backed down Brackney using a drop step. His rebound, putback and free throw cut the Bucknell lead to single digits. The senior forward followed with a jab step and spin move for a bucket. When he drove cross the lane for a deuce, Greiner sliced the Bucknell to four at 52-48 and brought a Bison timeout.
“Our problem has been just slow starts,” Greiner noted. “It could be little bit of fatigue. It could be a little bit of…you know over-confidence because we were in first. Who knows. But it’s just got to change.”
Lehigh fell 64-60 Saturday to Colgate despite scoring 18 straight.
With Monday’s loss, Lehigh could lose home-court advantage when the Patriot League tournament tips on March sixth.
“I still do feel like we do control our own destiny,” McKnight said. “We just got to right the ship right now and just keep on winning…We will definitely see them again if they handle their own business.”
Lehigh lost National Player-of-the-Year candidate, C.J. McCollum on January fifth when the senior guard suffered a broken bone in his foot. Since then the Mountain Hawks have gone 9-3.
McCollum was still on crutches Monday night wearing a boot cast.
Lehigh plays at Lafayette on Saturday with a noon tip-off.