Late in Friday’s game, Lehigh men’s basketball team had a chance to put No. 16 Villanova alongside Duke — the second goliath to be dethroned by little old Lehigh.
The Mountain Hawks just couldn’t close this time.
Down just two at halftime, then four with just over four minutes to go in the game, Lehigh fell to the reigning Big East regular season champion Wildcats by a score of 77-66.
The contest served as the inaugural basketball game for Lehigh and was played at the new PPL Center in Allentown — a site that the Hawks believe should have featured the marquee upset on the college basketball season’s opening night.
The 8,751 fans on-hand in Allentown didn’t see Villanova take its first lead of the game until 8:52 left in the first half, as the Hawks seemed unfazed by the aura of the homecoming for Wildcat senior guard Darrun Hilliard.
Hilliard, who played at Bethlehem’s Liberty High School, returned home to the Lehigh Valley for his senior season’s opening game. With “BETHLEHEM” tattooed across his back, the local and 2014 Honorable Mention All-Big East player squared up a guard from Indianapolis dressed in a brown uniform. His name was Austin Price, and the sophomore guard did nothing but spoil Hilliard’s homecoming in the first half.
Price held Hilliard to 2-11 shooting in the game’s first 20 minutes, including an uncanny 0-for-6 tally from 3-point range. Price finished the contest with a game-high 24 points, 17 of which came in the second half. A career-high for the lanky sharpshooter, Price proved more than ready for his nationally-televised match-up with the hometown hero.
“I knew (Hilliard) was going to be really aggressive, so I just had play defense — work for my defense — and my offensive will come to me,” Price said. “I just look at the game that way.”
The offense came to Price, the 6-4 guard who averaged 8.4 points per game as a freshman last season garnered his career-high Friday night on 10-of-17 shooting with four three-pointers.
Hilliard admitted the atmosphere disrupted his flow early, but the second most prolific scorer in Liberty High School history settled down for a solid 10-point, 4-assist and 4-steal night.
“If you look at the numbers, you could say I had an off-game,” Hilliard said. “I was over-excited. I was proud to be home. I was trying to do what the game plan called for. I was overly excited — that’s all that was.”
In addition to the Hilliard-Price match-up on the perimeter, another individual battle between two reigning all-league players was on display in the post. The 2014 Patriot League Rookie of the Year center Tim Kempton battled with Villanova’s junior center Daniel Ochefu, who shared last season’s Big East Most Improved Player honors with his teammate Hilliard.
Despite surrendering an inch in height and more than 20 pounds to Ochefu, Kempton’s crafty low-post game, coupled with his mid-range jumper, helped him tally 15 points and 10 rebounds on the night.
Villanova’s 1-2-2 full-court zone pressure created the bulk of the frustration for Lehigh, causing several of the Hawks’ 23 turnovers. Swarming the young backcourt of Price, sophomore guard Miles Simelton and freshman Kahron Ross, the Wildcats scored 31 points off turnovers to Lehigh’s four.
The suffocating press, however, was tempered by Kahron Ross when he was on the floor. The Jonesboro, Arkansas native, who is listed at 5 foot 11 and 155 pounds, seemed anything but intimidated by his college debut in front of a national audience.
Racking up six points and a game-high seven assists in just 18 minutes of play, the true freshman quickly settled the nerves of any Lehigh fans worrying about the team’s backcourt. For the first time in five seasons, the Hawks’ backcourt is without the program’s all-time assist leader Mackey McKnight and current Portland Trail Blazer CJ McCollum.
Despite being limited due to foul trouble, Lehigh coach Brett Reed was more than content with the effort his freshman gave Friday night.
“I think the tempo and the feel of the game was totally different when he had the ball in his hands,” Reed said. “He was able to handle the pressure. He stepped up to the moment.”
Ross even drew the attention of Wildcat coach Jay Wright after the game, as the former NCAA Coach of the Year called the guard a “tough little dude.”
With Ross sidelined with a couple of fouls, Villanova rallied after Lehigh’s 13-6 run to start the second-half, capitalizing on caused-turnovers. For Reed and the Hawks, that was the difference in the game.
“Their pressure was designed not only to disrupt rhythm and flow, but also to force turnovers,” Reed said. “We had many turnovers that were a result of their press, but far too many turnovers that were self-inflicted.”
Despite a late dunk by junior forward Jesse Chuku (7 points, 5 rebounds) that erupted the Lehigh bench and the inspired second-half play by Price, the balanced Wildcat attack was too much for the Hawks. Four Villanova players scored in double-figures, led by junior guard Dylan Ennis, who had a team-high 19 points. Ennis is the older brother of Phoenix Suns guard Tyler Ennis,
The Hawks will play their first home game of the season Tuesday at 7 p.m. against Canisius College at Stabler Arena.