Lehigh freshman center James Karnik runs down the court during a game against Bucknell University at Stabler Arena on Feb. 5. Karnik is one of two freshmen on the team that started throughout the season. (Kate Morrell/B&W Staff)

Lehigh men’s basketball leaned on underclassmen for success this season

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Despite the sea of brown and white and a ferocious comeback with six minutes left on the clock, the Lehigh men’s basketball team concluded its season with an 88-82 loss to Boston University in the Patriot League quarterfinals at Stabler Arena on March 1.

The Mountain Hawks fought hard to diminish the 20-point gap as the minutes withered away and were able to pull within five with 30 seconds remaining in the game. But, ultimately, their efforts fell short.

The team ended its year with a 16-14 overall record and an 11-7 conference record. Lehigh placed first in the Patriot League in 3-point shooting percentage with 40.6 and second in scoring with 77.9 average points scored per game.

Regardless of the disappointing end to their season, the Mountain Hawks refuse to let the quarterfinal loss take away from the major successes they found throughout the rest of the year.

Lehigh went into the year with some questions that were soon answered. The team had graduated over 4,000 career points and 1,600 career rebounds from last year’s senior class. Additionally, with injuries from two of the team’s strongest centers — junior Caleb Sedore and sophomore Jack Lieb — the Mountain Hawks depended on younger, more inexperienced players to step up.

The young team proved that wouldn’t be an issue.

Sophomore forward Pat Andree said the freshmen played important roles right from the start of the season.

“All the freshmen were huge,” Andree said. “From one to four, everyone fulfilled the role that they were set to do on the team.”

Freshman center James Karnik started 29 of the 30 games of the season and played in all 30. The team looked to him early in the season to step up and replace injured Sedore and Lieb. Coach Brett Reed said that given Karnik’s height of 6 feet 9 inches, the team thought he could have the most streamline opportunity to get minutes.

But Karnik wasn’t just a placeholder.

“His performance earned him the starting role,” Reed said. “He played well for us and was a huge contributor, in addition to just compensating for injuries.”

After producing four double-doubles against Bucknell University and American University, Karnik had successfully asserted himself as a key contributor to the team.

“James was great for us as a freshman to be able to put up some double-double numbers,” Andree said. “To contribute as much as he did just as a freshman is a huge strength. We can expect big things from him and the other freshmen next season.”

Freshman guard Marques Wilson also started for the team, but his experience was slightly different from Karnik’s.

At the start of the season, Wilson didn’t see much playing time at all. In fact, he saw only four minutes in his first game appearance. He said he barely slept the night before the contest, and his nerves got the best of him. But once Wilson got rid of the butterflies, he was a transformed player.

“As I became more comfortable, I just became a part of the game,” Wilson said. “And then there came a certain point where I actually believed that I should be starting. At first you kind of don’t really believe it. You’re like, ‘Is (Coach Reed) actually putting me in right now?’ But eventually, I was like, ‘I’m a capable player. I deserve to be here.'”

He showed up to practice day after day, determined to play more minutes and earn a spot among the starting five.

“Wilson obviously didn’t start the year the way he wanted to,” Andree said. “As a young guy, to be able to compose himself and keep working in every practice and game and just to kind of battle back for minutes was impressive. He became huge for us throughout the year. He started stepping up in times when we really needed him, and we were able to go on a run with him.”

Wilson captured a career-high against Colgate University, racking up 28 points and assisting the Mountain Hawks in their 88-78 victory over the Raiders.

Freshman guard Caleb Bennett averaged 18.4 minutes per game off the bench. Together, the freshmen trio scored 534 of the team’s points and played a combined 1,737 minutes.

Reed said the freshmen gained valuable experience during the season that will lead to them becoming top contributors in the coming years.

More experienced players like senior guard Kahron Ross, junior guard Lance Tejada and Andree were instrumental leaders on the court as well, putting up a combined 1,168 of the team’s 2,336 points.

Ross finished his record-breaking Lehigh basketball career with 660 assists, ranking fourth in the Patriot League and first on the team this season with 127. Tejada led the team in scoring with 396 points this season and in 3-point shooting percentage. He and Andree were first and second in the league in 3-point shooting percentage with 45.3 and 42.9, respectively.

Despite Andree’s impressive statistics, he said he’s most excited about the team’s ability to work cohesively and resiliently.

“Having a young team and showing a lot of strengths and improvement with wins at another team’s home place is a really positive sign for the future,” Andree said. “You know, just kind of bouncing back from one game to the next and never giving up, no matter what the outcome was.”

And “bouncing back” is exactly what the team did.

After a rocky start to the season, the Mountain Hawks went on an eight-game winning streak that carried through each of the seven victorious games played in February, allowing Lehigh to capitalize on overtime wins against tough opponents Bucknell and American.

Looking forward to the offseason, the team is focused on improving the weaknesses that prevented it from advancing further in this year’s Patriot League Tournament.

Reed did not make any excuses when it came to his team’s defensive struggles. Instead, he said he sees Lehigh’s defensive shortcomings as another opportunity for the Mountain Hawks to improve.

“If our team is going to truly be a championship-contending team, we have to become a better defensive team,” Reed said. “The team that won the league this year was the best defensive team of the year, and we were one of the poorest. And that gap could be the difference between winning a championship or not.”

Although the season didn’t end the way the Mountain Hawks had hoped, Reed said he’s proud of his team for its accomplishments and overcoming much of the adversity it faced.

“I was really pleased that our team could play with as much unselfishness, trust and unity as we did,” Reed said. “We have it in us, we just need to be more consistent.”

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