COVID-depleted Eagles fall to full strength Lehigh
Free throws and poor second-half shooting negate a 19 point AU lead in the first half
Eagles can’t fly without their wings, and the coronavirus pandemic has clipped them.
The Eagles entered the game without regular starters seniors Josh Alexander, Stacy Beckton Jr., Connor Nelson and standout sophomore Colin Smalls. AU head coach Mike Brennan said all four were out due to COVID-19 protocols after the game but did not know when all four would be able to return to the team.
Despite this, AU found strength from its bench, and the Eagles started the first half on fire. The Eagles soared past their competition and took a 19 point lead with about seven minutes left in the first half, and went into halftime up 35-26.
Sophomore sensation Johnny O’Neil led the Eagles’ offensive in the first half. O’Neil scored all 12 of his points during the period, his jump shot lethal from three and in, and Lehigh seemed incapable of stopping the 6-foot-9-inch forward. The scoring came from other sources too in the first half. High flying senior Jaxon Knotek, sophomore Lorenzo Donadio and freshman Elijah Stephens each scored six points in the period, and the AU offense operated like a well-oiled machine.
AU also deployed a Fort Knox-like defense that complemented the Eagles’ devastating offense and the Mountain Hawks’ stubborn refusal to stop taking three-point shots. Lehigh, who is last in the Patriot League in points per game and three-point percentage, threw up brick after brick and went seven minutes without scoring a point. Lehigh finished the half shooting a measly 39 percent from the field, 20 percent from three-point range and it seemed like AU was cruising to a comfortable victory.
But the momentum shifted in Lehigh’s favor to start the second half. AU’s offensive output was lethargic to begin the final period, and the Eagles could only muster seven points in the first seven minutes. AU’s inability to score was most acute at the free-throw line, and the Eagles went 5-13 during the second half.
Lehigh took advantage of AU’s stalled offense and began attacking the basket. AU’s ironclad defense faltered under the Lehigh assault, and the Mountain Hawks deliberately accrued an eight-point lead with less than nine minutes left that seemed to put the game out of reach.
AU did not submit and slowly tried to climb out of the hole they had dug for themselves. Stephens took control of AU’s offense and attacked the basket, again and again, weaving his way around Lehigh’s determined efforts to stop him. With layup after layup, Stephens’ 12 points in the final period kept the Eagles in the game.
Knotek also contributed seven points in the final period, although AU’s offense was spluttering, and O’Neil showed the Mountain Hawks his knack for emphatic blocks with three rejections in the half. Despite this, AU couldn’t erase Lehigh’s lead, and down by four with 39 seconds left, out of timeouts and Lehigh inbounding the ball, AU needed a late Christmas miracle.
Stephens nearly delivered that miracle for the beleaguered Bender Arena crowd. Stephens stole Lehigh’s inbounds pass and sank a layup to cut the lead to two. A Lehigh dunk brought the Mountain Hawks’ lead back to four, but Stephens secured an offensive rebound off an errant AU three and drained his own triple to bring the score to 62-61 with 18 seconds left.
However, AU was forced to foul Lehigh’s Reed Fenton ensuing possession, and the Mountain Hawk went to the line to make it a three-point game. Fenton made the first free throw, but despite being Lehigh’s third-best free-throw shooter, the junior guard missed the second and AU secured the rebound. With 11 seconds left in the game, Stephens got the ball and drove toward the basket.
Stephens seemed to have a step on his defender as he reached the paint, but the freshman opted not to attempt the layup, and as time ran down, Stephens passed to sophomore Matt Rogers in front of the basket. The forward’s layup hit the rim but did not go in and the game was over.
Brennan said after the game he was happy with Stephen’s decision and said that the freshman was a “terrific decision-maker.”
“He got Rogers a shot right at the rim so you can’t ask for a better decision than that.”
Despite the loss, Knotek and Stephens’ presence off the bench has been a revelation this season. After playing three years at North Dakota State University, Knotek is an offensive spark for the Eagles, averaging 6.5 points per game this season, and the Wisconsin native energized the Eagles all season with several rim-shaking dunks.
Stephens has also been an instant offense for the Eagles, and the standout of Brennan’s 2021-22 recruiting class has played in all 13 games and is fourth on the team in assists. Brennan said he was happy with the team’s performance despite the circumstances.
“I’m not happy they’re getting their experience in this fashion, but I am glad they are getting experience because we’re going to need them,” Brennan said.