On a frigid Friday night, an exciting game took place in the new PPL Center between Big East powerhouse Villanova University and the Lehigh men’s basketball team.
The Hawks stayed competitive for most of the game, but ultimately fell behind down the stretch and could not recover, losing 77-66.
The PPL Center was packed, with most seats filled on both levels. While several Lehigh students and supporters made the short trip, the arena erupted with Wildcats fans at hand, many of them supporting a local talent in Darrun Hilliard, a senior Wildcat who was previously a standout for Liberty High School in Bethlehem.
It was a strong start to the night for the Hawks. The very first possession saw junior forward Jesse Chuku grab the jump ball for the Hawks and make a layup to give the team a quick two points. Sophomore center Tim Kempton then showed some of the offensive firepower that he displayed last year by also contributing four early points. He would end the day second on the team with 15 points.
About five minutes into the game, freshman starting point guard Kahron Ross made a layup to get the very first points of his Mountain Hawks career. Following that, a basket by sophomore guard Austin Price meant that all five starters were on the board, and the team took a 12-6 lead.
The lead held until about eight minutes to go in the first half when a JayVaughn Pinkston jumper put the Wildcats in the driver’s seat 22-20.
The Hawks did get into some foul trouble early, with seven team fouls in the first half. In particular, Ross was plagued with foul troubles and got his third of the game with over seven minutes left in the first half.
The half ended with a 32-30 Wildcats lead, and a true back and forth battle played out in the closing minutes. The Wildcats were struggling significantly to hit many of their shots during the night, and they were a measly three for 23 from the three-point range. Hilliard was pressing hard, but only converted two of 11 field goals in the first half of his “homecoming.”
The Hawks came out firing to begin the second half, with two quick three pointers by Price, who had a career night with 24 points. A huge upset by Lehigh became even more conceivable with senior guard Corey Schaefer’s successful three pointer with just over 16 minutes left to put the team up 43-38.
However, in the next seven minutes Lehigh would lose this lead, committing six turnovers while the Wildcats capitalized. The Wildcats began to look like the No. 12 team in the country, sinking threes and taking advantage of foul troubles from Lehigh. Suddenly, a 48-43 Lehigh lead became a 54-50 deficit.
For a few quick minutes, PPL Center became dunk central, and the crowd was electrified. With just over nine minutes, a Hilliard dunk made it 56-51 Villanova. Villanova kept the pressure on in a huge scoring run, but Hawks supporters were rejuvenated by a dunk from Chuku to put Lehigh down by just six.
The Hawks recovered further to be down just 62-58 after another Price three, but that momentum did not last. Dylan Ennis, brother of former Syracuse University star Tyler Ennis, had the highlight of his night when he made a huge three to put the Wildcats up 66-58 with just over three minutes left. He would lead the Cats with 19 points.
That three proved too much for the Hawks to come back, and no opportunity came about later to get the Hawks back into the game.
The Hawks showed they can be serious contenders, remaining competitive for much of the game with one of the top ranked teams in the country. However, with 22 total team fouls and 23 team turnovers, the Hawks were buried when the Wildcats cold shooting of the first half disappeared.
The Hawks will go for their first win when they return to Stabler Arena to play Canisius College on Tuesday at 7 p.m.