In a season like no other, the Lafayette men’s basketball team got off to an exciting start against rival Lehigh with a win and a loss in the team’s opening series this past weekend. The team’s loss in the opener was a nail-biter that came down to an overtime buzzer beater by Lehigh, leaving a final score of 90-89. The Leopards got their revenge in the second game, outscoring the Mountain Hawks in both halves en route to an 82-70 win.
After all fall sports were cancelled within the Patriot League, only men’s and women’s basketball programs so far have been cleared to return to action in the spring season despite the CDC defining it as a “close-contact” activity, an unsurprising decision given the popularity of the sport.
“The team’s mindset is just enjoying and taking advantage of every day that we’re playing,” said senior co-captain Justin Jaworski. “There is so much uncertainty surrounding the pandemic and our season, so we want to take advantage of the games we have.”
The 16-game regular season was approved by the Patriot League Council of Presidents in early November, with each team competing in a regional mini-conference with two other schools. Each league team will face off against their regional mini-conference opponents four times and will also play eight games outside of their mini-conference. Teams will play two games against the same opponent on Saturday and Sunday to reduce travel and risk of transmission.
In total, there are three mini-conferences and each of the three mini-conference winners will earn a spot in the Patriot League Tournament field. The second place team in each of the mini-conferences will also qualify for the Patriot League Tournament. The final two spots in the tournament will be determined by overall in-league winning percentage. The three mini-conference winners will each host a quarterfinal game.
Lafayette’s mini-conference consists of Lehigh, whom they will play twice more, and Bucknell, whom they will face twice this upcoming weekend.
Despite an unusual season, some things have remained constant for the Leopards.
“Our team’s goal is the same it’s been every year I’ve been here, and that’s to win a Patriot League Championship,” said senior co-captain EJ Stephens. “I think we’re blessed that we are able to have a season this year, and we want to take full advantage of that and bring home a trophy to Easton.”
Jaworski and Stephens had their career days’ spoiled on Saturday, as Lehigh stole the opener on a corner three buzzer beater by senior Marques Wilson. Jaworski dropped 37 points for the Leopards while Stephens added 30, both career-highs. Together, Jaworski and Stephens produced over 75 percent of the Leopard offense.
With the game tied at 79 apiece late in the fourth quarter, junior guard Tyrone Perry tossed a high floater off the glass which was rebounded by Lehigh. A last second heave by the Mountain Hawks was off the mark and the game moved into overtime.
The teams went back and forth throughout the extra frame and no team could manage to gain an advantage until Stephens delivered a jumper from the right wing to give the Leopards an 89-87 lead with 2.2 seconds remaining.
Shockingly, that was not enough as the Mountain Hawks inbounded the ball and Wilson hit a corner three as time expired to lift Lehigh to victory.
“That’s basketball. These things happen. It’s just one of those plays and he made a great shot,” said head coach Fran O’Hanlon, per GoLeopards.com. “We scored the ball and did a good job today. It seemed like whoever had the ball last was going to win.”
Jaworski, returning from a leg injury that caused him to miss the final seven games of last season, did not miss a beat in the home opener. He shot a scorching 12-of-19 from the field, 3-of-6 from three, and 10-of-11 from the charity stripe.
“I worked harder this offseason than I ever have before,” Jaworski said. “With physical therapy every day while also making sure I get my basketball specific work in too was definitely a grind. Consistent recovery and taking care of my body was also extremely important.”
Stephens backed Jaworski’s strong effort with 30 points on 11-of-20 shooting from the field, and was a perfect 2-of-2 from three and 6-of-7 from the free-throw line.
Lafayette outscored Lehigh 45-39 in the first half, but was outscored 40-34 in the second half and 11-10 in overtime.
“Overall I think the team performed well,” Stephens said. “We lost a tough one, but I think we played well. We definitely need to pick up our defense, we aren’t going to be able to outscore our opponents every game, so we need to play better defense going forward.”
Lafayette bounced back in the second game of the weekend set with a convincing 82-70 win. Once again the Leopards were led by Jaworski who scored 28 points and shot 50 percent from the field. Sophomore forward Leo O’Boyle added 14, while Perry and senior Stephens added 12 apiece.
“We felt like we owed them one after the way we lost that game,” Jaworski said. “It’s also worth mentioning that whether or not the shot went in, we didn’t finish that game down the stretch the way we needed to.”
After scoring a combined 65 points over the first two games of the season, Jaworski is currently the nation’s leading scorer at 32.5 points per game.
Lehigh controlled the game in the opening minutes, jumping out to a 10-2 lead which quickly turned into a 16-2 lead at the 13-minute mark. Two threes by Jaworski and Perry cut the deficit to 10, before a 12-4 Lafayette run closed the gap to just two points with eight minutes left in the first half.
The Leopards took a four point lead at the four-minute mark of the first half on freshman guard Jon Brantley’s first career triple. The two sides traded points in the final four minutes and Lafayette entered the half with a 44-40 lead.
The Leopards opened the second half with a three from O’Boyle and never looked back. Though the game remained close until the eight-minute mark, the Leopards never gave the lead up. With eight minutes remaining, and with the score at 63-60 in favor of the Leopards, Lafayette went on an 11-4 run to push the lead to 10 with four minutes remaining, and cruised to an 82-70 win.
“I think the biggest challenge for the team and myself this year has been the back-to-back games,” Stephens said. “We had a couple of players play a lot of minutes in back-to-back games and that just wears on your body. As a team we definitely will be spending some more time in the training room and getting the appropriate recovery.”
The team will have the week to recuperate before facing Bucknell this weekend, with Saturday’s game in Lewisburg and Sunday’s game in Easton.