LEWISBURG Poise. Resiliency. Togetherness.
Lehigh needed all three traits on Wednesday night against Bucknell in a nationally-televised game featuring the remaining two unbeatens in Patriot League play.
The Mountain Hawks needed them against a crowd of nearly 4,000 screaming fans - some dressed in bright orange and others in towels and shower caps. They needed them when a 15-point first-half lead was cut to a single point before halftime and they needed them when falling behind by seven points in the second half.
Playing without NBA prospect and reigning Patriot League Player of the Year CJ McCollum for the fifth consecutive game, Lehigh displayed all three characteristics and defeated the Bison on their home court, 65-62, to take sole possession of first place in the Patriot League.
"This year's team has faced adversity, they've shown resiliency and tremendous togetherness," said Lehigh coach Brett Reed. "Even in an environment like tonight where it would have been easy to feel a little bit down or take a step back after losing a fairly large lead and into a deficit, our guys continued to demonstrate poise, resiliency and togetherness."
Some questioned whether Lehigh could remain a Patriot League favorite after losing McCollum on Jan. 5 at Virginia Commonwealth to a broken foot, but since losing him the Mountain Hawks (14-4, 4-0 Patriot League) are 5-0, including key Patriot League road wins at American and Bucknell.
Bucknell (16-4, 3-1) sits alone in second place in the league standings after Holy Cross lost at Lafayette on Wednesday night and the Bison will travel to Massachusetts on Saturday afternoon.
There Paulsen hopes to see a different team. Not the one who allowed the Mountain Hawks to race out to a 15-point lead in a place where Bucknell had won 71 of their previous 85 games against Patriot League foes.
"It's like a broken record and at some point it is going to come to the internal leadership of the team," Paulsen said. "If guys aren't ready and focused, grab them and say we don't want you on the court with us because some very good players who have had very good careers are going to have their careers end in tremendous disappointment if they don't do what is necessary to help this team win."
The 3-point line allowed the Mountain Hawks to gain confidence early in hostile territory as they knocked down six first-half 3-pointers and led 27-12 after Corey Schaefer made the second of his two 3-pointers from off the bench.
"I'm really disappointed in the level of toughness from the other team," said Paulsen about his team. "To go in your home court and spot them a 15-point lead on defensive blunder after defensive blunder is just a disgrace. And then we fought so hard to come back and then gave them two key offensive rebounds down the stretch when the game hung in the balance.
"This one hurts."
Lehigh finished 10 of 18 from behind the arc, while the Bison were just 2 of 14.
Bucknell struggled to hit shots from anywhere early against the Mountain Hawks and had just 12 points with 6:03 remaining in the first half. Bryson Johnson, however, made the team's first 3-pointer and was fouled, and after converting the four-point play Bucknell's confidence grew with the crowd noise and each successful shot.
Freshman Dom Hoffman, who assisted on Johnson's four-point play, came off the bench and hit consecutive field goals during Bucknell's 16-2 run that closed the once 15-point deficit to one before the half.
A Mike Muscala basket started the second half and for the first time in 12 previous Patriot League games this season there was a second-half lead change between teams. Lehigh did retake the lead, but Bucknell led by seven points after a Ryan Hill layup with 12:46 remaining.
"When we were down seven, Mackey (McKnight) and myself just pulled everyone in and said we can win this game," Lehigh senior Holden Greiner said. "We just needed to play defense every possession. Every one of us had to believe we could win. We had to get stops and we'd find a way to score."
The Bison had to play a stretch in the second half without their top scorer after Muscala injured his leg. He received treatment at the end of the Bucknell bench and he tested the injury in the runway between the sections behind the Bucknell bench and baseline seats before returning five minutes later and his team up five points and 6:34 left in the game.
The 6-foot-11 center broke a 56-all tie with a bucket with 5:15 remaining, but he didn't score again and the Bison were held without a field goal until a Joe Willman basket with seven seconds remaining.
That basket made it a two-point game before Greiner made 1 of 2 at the line and then stood with his arms straight up in front of Cameron Ayers as he missed an NBA-range 3-pointer in front of press row as time expired.
Muscala, who still reached his average of 32 minutes a game last night, finished with 16 points and eight rebounds.
Willman added 15 points and nine rebounds. Hoffman finished with a career-high 10 points. His previous career high was four points and last night was the first time he had multiple field goals in a game since Dec. 17 at St. Francis.
B.J. Bailey made all four of his 3-point attempts and led Lehigh with 18 points.
"You give a really good talented team like Lehigh a couple open looks on defensive lapses and then all of sudden the basket is like eight feet around for a guy like B.J. Bailey," Paulsen said.
McKnight added 17 and Greiner 12 for Lehigh.
Lehigh, who has now won three consecutive games in Sojka Pavilion, and Bucknell will meet again in Bethlehem on Feb. 18.
"Yes, I'm pleased, but we want to make sure this isn't the highlight of our season," Reed said.
Greiner 4-12 3-6 12, Knutson 3-12 0-1 6, DOrazio 0-6 0-2 0, Bailey 5-8 4-4 18, McKnight 5-15 4-4 17, Schaefer 2-2 0-0 6, Cvrkalj 0-1 0-0 0, Goldsborough 2-3 2-4 6. Totals 21-59 13-21 65.
Willman 7-12 1-2 15, Muscala 7-15 2-3 16, Hill 3-5 0-0 6, Johnson 2-9 1-1 6, Ayers 3-9 2-4 9, Kaspar 0-0 0-0 0, Fitzpatrick 0-2 0-0 0, Frazier 0-2 0-0 0, Hoffman 4-4 2-3 10. Totals 26-58 8-13 62.
Halftime-Lehigh 29-28. 3-Point Goals-Lehigh 10-18 (Bailey 4-4, McKnight 3-5, Schaefer 2-2, Greiner 1-2, Cvrkalj 0-1, DOrazio 0-1, Knutson 0-3), Bucknell 2-14 (Johnson 1-4, Ayers 1-6, Hill 0-2, Frazier 0-2). Fouled Out-None. Rebounds-Lehigh 34 (Knutson 9), Bucknell 39 (Willman 9). Assists-Lehigh 10 (Bailey, McKnight 3), Bucknell 15 (Ayers 8). Total Fouls-Lehigh 12, Bucknell 13. A-3,964.