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Lehigh's turnaround on full display as postseason looms

02/26/2015, 12:05am EST
By Jeff Neiburg

Jeff Neiburg (@Jeff_Neiburg)

Lehigh started its Patriot League slate by dropping four of its first five games in league play.

With a young team starting three underclassmen and one with just three seniors, the season could have gone anywhere from that point. A deeper slide into the Patriot League standings wouldn’t have been too crazy.

But the Mountain Hawks wanted more. Those three seniors, Cory SchaeferStefan Cvrkalj and Conroy Baltimore, wanted more.

“Our team, we had a meeting where we set times for about an hour, hour 15 minutes every week where we have to bring someone from a different class to shoot with us,” sophomore guard Austin Price said. “It was really good for team bonding.”

“We made it a conscious effort to all work out more,” freshman point guard Kahron Ross said. “It was just on us, it didn’t have anything to do with the coaches, we just had to get in the gym and get better.”

The extra shooting, which was additional work on top of regular practice time, leaves no doubt when wondering how Lehigh went from 1-4 in league play to winning nine of its next 12.

The Mountain Hawks clinched the No. 3 seed and guaranteed themselves a home game to open up the Patriot League Tournament after an 84-65 dominant, wire-to-wire win over Bucknell Wednesday night.

And how far they’ve come since that meeting was on full display in beating the Patriot League's top team.

“I was hopeful that we would continue to progress, I was hopeful that we would trust the process and kind of trust each other,” coach Brett Reed said. “One issue with youth is, they’ve never been in these situations and they don’t necessarily know how to handle a deficit or defeats like that. Fortunately for us, we talk about the underclassmen and their growth and development.

“And we’ve seen that as far as their play, but I will tell you to the nth degree that we would be nowhere without the leadership of Cory Schaefer, the leadership of Stefan Cvrkalj and the leadership of Conroy Baltimore. Those young men have been very selfless in this process, they have been very committed to what we’re trying to do and they have been part of the reason that we have been able to make this resurgence. If they would have gotten sideways, our team would not look like it is today.”

Among that group of seniors, only Schaefer sees regular playing time as one of the team’s three starting guards.

It’s been the play of the underclassmen which has put Lehigh in the position it stands with just one regular season game left, a matchup with Colgate on Saturday.

Ross, who Reed said should be the conference’s Rookie of the Year, turned in his fourth career double-double in Wednesday’s win, scoring a game-best 17 points on 5-for-9 shooting to go with 10 assists.

Price, who struggled with shot in the beginning of the year, scored 16 points to up his average to 11.4ppg.

Sophomore big man Tim Kempton reached double figures for the 25th time in 28 games, scoring 11 points while grabbing eight rebounds. His starting frontcourt counterpart, Justin Goldsborough, a junior, tallied nine points and 11 rebounds.

The Mountain Hawks (16-12, 10-7 Patriot League) are also where they’re at because of their bench play, too. And they’ve become ever so dangerous because of their scoring balance of late.

Junior forward Jesse Chuku came off the bench Wednesday with a hot hand, pouring in 14 points on 5-for-7 shooting, including 4-of-5 from beyond the arc. His final trey came during a 15-5 run in the second half which helped Lehigh build its largest lead, 79-51 with just under seven minutes to play.

“I think the main thing is just trust,” Chuku saud. “We’re definitely starting to trust each other more, always making the extra pass because we trust that we’re in the gym everyday making these shots.”

The revival of Lehigh is also a glimpse into how much parity exists in the Patriot League. The conference tournament starts on Tuesday, and there’s no sure-fire favorite.

Bucknell (17-13, 12-5) and Colgate (14-16, 11-6) still have to decide the order of the Top 2 seeds in the conference, but Lehigh is now assured a bye to the quarterfinals with the rest of the four top teams in the league.

In a 10-team league with just six games separating the top from the bottom, having to play one less round is all the more crucial.

“You have a number of teams that could all vie for a Patriot League championship,” Reed said. “The games have been competitive throughout, there have been no nights off and it’s been a great learning lesson for our relatively young team to make sure that they come with that mindset and mentality overall.”

“We’re just taking it a game at a time,” Chuku said. “We believe that we’re the best team in the league, obviously. We think that if we come with the energy we can beat anyone.”

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