Under Mike Brennan, American has been nearly unstoppable in the Patriot League Tournament. In 2014, the No. 2-seed Eagles ran through three games with ease, thrashing No. 1 Boston University in the final. Last year, coming in as the sixth seed, they upset two teams before a two-point loss to Lafayette in the final. Continue reading
When American met Boston University for the first time this season, the teams were a combined 1-7 in conference play, both reeling from critical injuries. Fast-forward a month, and in true Patriot League fashion, everything has changed: Both squads had leapt up the standings, winning four of their last five games before Wednesday’s meeting. Continue reading
For a few minutes Thursday evening, it looked as if the Patriot League quarterfinals might have little drama. All four home teams led by multiple possessions at halftime, and three extended their advantages to double digits early in the second half.
But this year’s Patriot League has found excitement at every turn, and its postseason is no exception. One game went to overtime, another was decided in the final minute, and the only true blowout came between teams with identical records in the 4-5 game. A recap:
#1 Bucknell 90, #8 Holy Cross 83 (OT): Malcolm Miller wouldn’t end his career quietly. After a lethargic first half, the Crusaders trailed by as many as 16 points in the second before their star senior turned it on. Miller had four traditional three-point plays in a four-minute stretch, making seven straight shots to lead the visitors back in the game. After blocking two shots on one possession, Miller made two free throws to give Holy Cross the lead at the two-minute mark.
The Crusaders led by three with 30 seconds to play, but as he’d done all night, first-team all-conference guard Chris Hass answered. Eric Green, one of the league’s best defenders, bumped Hass from behind, turning Hass’ short floater into a game-tying three-point play. The Bison pulled away in overtime to avoid becoming the first 1-seed to bow out before the finals in Patriot League Tournament history.
Hass matched a career high with 32 points, while Miller set his own with 34 in his career finale. In contrast to his 30-performance at Boston U. last week, Miller got most of Thursday’s points inside. Nine of his 11 field goals came in the paint, and even with an inefficient overtime period, he needed only 24 shooting possessions to get his 34 points:
#2 Colgate 72, #7 Navy 62: Aided by garbage-time free throws, the Raiders scored 1.26 points per possession after the break to advance to the semifinals. Matt McMullen had a double-double in the second half alone, totaling 18 points and 15 rebounds, as Colgate advanced to its first semifinals since 2009.
Rookie Bryce Dulin scored a career-high 16 points at an opportune time, all in the second half, but the Midshipmen never pulled closer than six points down the stretch. After blocking a tournament record eight shots against Army, Will Kelly didn’t swat a single ball on Thursday. Limited by foul trouble, Kelly played only 23 minutes, and Navy was outscored by 12 points with him on the bench.
#6 American 68, #3 Lehigh 62: The Mountain Hawks will have a long offseason to stew on their first-round exit: As a home favorite, they lost by two possessions while shooting 7-16 from the free-throw line. Lehigh was actually one of the nation’s better foul shooting teams this year, ranking in the top 50 at 73%. Tim Kempton played like the league’s Player of the Year, scoring 20 points on 9-9 shooting and grabbing 11 rebounds, but his teammates went 3-14 from three-point range.
Like many coaches, American’s Mike Brennan has shortened his rotation down the stretch; unlike many coaches, Brennan’s rotation was already limited to seven players, and is now down to six. Jesse Reed and Pee Wee Gardner each played the full 40 minutes, enough time for the former to score 24 points and the latter to notch 10 assists (against one turnovers). Marko Vasic posted a double-double despite spending 82 whole seconds on the bench.
#4 Lafayette 89, #5 Boston U. 64: After Holy Cross torched the Terriers with 13 three-pointers in their regular-season finale, Boston U. coach Joe Jones was frustrated with his team’s defensive inconsistency. “When you look at our defensive field goal percentage in our nine [conference] wins, we’ve held teams to 37%. In nine losses, it’s 48%,” he said. “We’ve been really up and down all year, just in our ability to be focused and connected.”
Thursday was another down night for the Terriers, as Lafayette posted a 77% effective field goal percentage, including a Patriot League Tournament-record 16 threes, en route to a blowout victory. No team expects to allow 55% shooting beyond the arc, but surrendering 29 attempts (many of which were open) is inexcusable against a team ranked in the top 10 nationally in three-point accuracy. Point guard Nick Lindner (5-8 from three) led the way with 23 points as one of five Leopards in double figures.
Lafayette avenged a similarly lopsided loss at Boston U. in last year’s quarterfinals. More remarkably, the Leopards scored their 89 points while only attempting two free throws, becoming the first team to do so since at least 2010.
Semifinals (Sunday, March 8):
#4 Lafayette at #1 Bucknell
#6 American at #2 Colgate
Final (Wednesday, March 11):
#6/2 vs #4/1, at higher seed
Before Wednesday’s visit to Agganis Arena, American had won three straight games thanks to three last-second shots by Pee Wee Gardner. Meanwhile, Boston University had lost three in a row, two of which were decided on the final play. So when the Eagles clawed within one possession and had the ball entering the final minute, it looked like their streak of late-game highlights might continue. Continue reading
If there was ever a time for the Lehigh Mountain Hawks to have an off-night, Wednesday night in Washington D.C. presented a perfect opportunity. C.J. McCollum was back on campus rehabbing his broken foot. Preseason All-Patriot League selection Gabe Knutson sat on the bench midway through the first half saddled with two fouls. The American Eagles drained five of their first nine shots – with four of them from behind the arc – to race out to a 21-9 advantage. With the Mountain Hawks back on their heels, the energized home court could practically smell the upset.
It would have been an ideal time for Dr. Brett Reed’s undermanned team to call it a night. But Holden Greiner and the defense simply wouldn’t allow for that to happen.
The 6’8″ senior played the game of his life, scoring 18 of his 22 points (on 10 of 13 shooting) in the first half to will his Mountain Hawks back into the game. Greiner’s energy, versatility, and ability to score from anywhere on the floor sparked a 22-7 run to close out the first half. The comeback gave Lehigh a lead that frankly didn’t seem possible only ten minutes prior.
“I thought Holden’s offensive attack and energy was a big catalyst for our run to get us back into the game,” said Reed. “He played with a great deal of confidence tonight. He had an aggressive attack mentality and he’s multi-faceted with his skill level. He can step out and shoot the ball. He drives the basketball effectively to finish. He also has very good vision, so he’s great for other people as help comes. Because of that combination, it makes him a difficult cover.”
The Mountain Hawks slowly extended their lead to a game high 12 points, 55-43, midway through the second half. This time, it was the defense that stymied the Eagles. Lehigh forced 15 turnovers in the game, leading to 14 points. American head coach Jeff Jones, while satisfied with his team’s overall effort in their second Patriot League game of the season, wasn’t pleased with their offensive execution, especially in the second half.
“Lehigh is a very good defensive team, but a majority of our turnovers were us not being strong with the ball and us making some poor decisions,” said the veteran coach. “That kind of self-inflicted damage in a close game makes it tough to win against a quality opponent in Lehigh.”
American, sparked by their crowd and their distinct interior advantage with big men Stephen Lumpkins and Tony Wroblicky, still wouldn’t go down without a fight. When senior Blake Jolivette knifed his way through the lane for a lay-up, Lehigh’s once dominant lead was cut to three points late. But then three straight turnovers on the ensuing three possessions ensured the Mountain Hawks would never relinquish their lead for the rest of the night. It all came back to defense.
“Our defense was key for our victory tonight,” said Reed. “I think American played very well in the beginning of the game. They made shots, they made the right plays at the right time, which allowed them to be efficient. And because they played so well, I think we went back on our heels just a little bit. However, I do give our guys and great deal of credit for ultimately finding their resolve, correcting what was going on out there, and then imposing their will into the game which led to the major turnaround we had in the first half.”
After allowing the Eagles to race out to the early lead, Lehigh held American to 18 of 45 shooting (40.0%). The Mountain Hawks sealed up the perimeter and showed why they’re holding opponents to 29.4% from three-point land this season. In addition, Lehigh made sure Lumpkins worked extremely hard for every point. Despite scoring 10 points and corralling 17 rebounds, the senior was consistently double teamed – even tripled teamed at times – once he touched the ball in the low post. As a result, Lumpkins’ 10 points were scored on as many shots. It was clearly a focus of Lehigh’s game plan.
“It’s not an easy thing to neutralize American’s big men,” said Reed. “Stephen Lumpkins is an excellent low post player. It took a total team effort to try to neutralize him as much as we could.”
Reed then added, “They have a strength, it’s not necessary been our strength, however we were able to survive especially with the right dynamics of trying to put the right people in right spots, and our guys bought in trying to make that happen.”
In all, nine Mountain Hawks scored in their hard fought 63-57 victory at American. While Greiner was an absolute nightmare for the Eagles in the first half, Lehigh was led by a bevy of players – most notably Mackey McKnight with his 11 points, six rebounds, five assists, and four steals – in the second half.
It was a collective team effort and illustrated why Lehigh knocked off Duke in the second round of last year’s NCAA tournament. C.J. McCollum may be the star, but with an excellent supporting cast of Greiner, McKnight, and Gabe Knutson (who had an off-night with only two points, three rebounds, three turnovers, and four personal fouls) around the future NBA pro, it’s reasonable to suggest that Lehigh could make it back to the NCAA tournament, even if McCollum doesn’t return from his broken foot until early to mid March.
In the meantime, Dr. Reed has been pleased with his team’s fight, character, and unselfishness since McCollum’s injury. On any given night, a number of players could step up. It’s an approach that will be instrumental to their future success.
Said Reed, “I think we have a number of players who could fulfill that role of a go-to-guy, however we have a number of players who are unselfish enough to be able to play off of each other.”
Lehigh heads home for a Saturday showdown with Colgate, before traveling to Bucknell for a much anticipated matchup with Mike Muscala and the Bison next Wednesday night. American will make the trek north to take on Holy Cross, before returning home next Wednesday to square off against Navy.
Ryan Peters covers mid-major college basketball for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow Ryan on Twitter @pioneer_pride