Despite nearly erasing an 18-point deficit, the Liberty men's basketball team was unable to climb over the hump Saturday night, falling to Lehigh inside the Vines Center, 90-80.
With the defeat in their second game of the 2K Sports Classic Benefiting Coaches vs. Cancer Lynchburg Subregional, the Flames drop to 2-3 on the year. The Mountain Hawks improve to 3-2 overall.
After garnering his 500th career assist, Liberty point guard Jesse Sanders achieved another milestone, grabbing his 600th career rebound late in the first half. The senior concluded the contest with eight boards and currently has 601 for his career.
C.J. McCollum led Lehigh with a game-high 32 points, followed by Jordan Hamilton with 23. John Caleb Sanders paced the Flames' attack, tying his career high with 18 points.
The Mountain Hawks lit up the board first in the opening 43 seconds off a Mackey McKnight layup. Antwan Burrus knotted the contest with a jumper, but the visitors answered with a 7-0 run capped by a McCollum bucket to take a 9-2 lead at 17:00.
Lehigh took a 10-point lead with 15:27 remaining in the half, thanks to a trey by Hamilton. After John Caleb Sanders nullified the basket with a three-pointer of his own, the Mountain Hawks continued to create distance, going on an 11-0 run. McCollum once again bookended the burst, draining a three-point shot to give Lehigh a 25-7 at 11:56.
Liberty began to chip away at the bulge, outscoring the Mountain Hawks 12-6 over the next 5:20. David Minaya and Stephen Baird highlighted the span, netting seven and five points, respectively. A layup by Minaya put the Flames within 12, 31-19, at 6:36.
Following a Lehigh basket, Liberty posted eight unanswered points to cut the deficit to six. The Mountain Hawks responded with eight tallies of their own to cancel out the Flames' surge, making it 41-29, with 2:39 remaining in the half. During the visitors' run, Jesse Sanders garnered his 600th assist, grabbing a defensive rebound at the 4:25 mark.
The Flames outpointed Lehigh in the remaining minute of the half, receiving buckets from Jesse Sanders and Tavares Speaks. Sanders closed out the scoring for Liberty, connecting on a buzzer-beating layup to make it 43-35 at halftime.
The Mountain Hawks shot 48.6 percent from the field in the first half, hitting 17-of-35 shots. Liberty shot 37.1 percent in the period, knocking down 13-of-35 attempts. Lehigh outscored the Flames from behind the three-point arc, 15-6, hitting 5-of-10 shots (50.0 percent) from three-point land in the opening half.
McCollum led Lehigh with 14 points at half's end, followed by Hamilton who chipped in 12. John Caleb Sanders and Minaya each had seven points for the Flames.
Lehigh quickly regained a double-digit advantage in the first minute of the second half, receiving baskets from Holden Greiner and Gabe Knutson to up its advantage to 12, 47-35, at 19:11. The Mountain Hawks maintained their double-digit cushion until the 15:06 mark, as Burrus sank two free throws to make it a nine-point game, 56-47.
Liberty continued to chip away at the visitors' advantage over the next 3:08, outscoring Lehigh, 8-2 during the span. Jesse Sanders made it a one-possession game with 11:58 remaining in the contest, connecting on a layup to put the Flames within three, 58-55.
The Mountain Hawks outpointed the Flames, 7-1, over the next 1:07 to widen the gap back to nine, 65-56, at 10:51. After Liberty cut it to six 39 seconds later, the Mountain Hawks eventually regained the double-digit lead. Greiner knocked down a jumper with 5:10 left on the clock, making it 76-66.
Liberty cut it to eight with 3:12 remaining, but could not climb any closer, leading to the 90-80 final.
Lehigh shot 53.4 percent for the contest, hitting 31-of-58 shots from the field. The Flames finished the night with 28-of-65 shooting (43.1 percent). The Mountain Hawks held the advantage in the paint (38-26) and off turnovers (17-13). The Flames outscored Lehigh on second-chance points (15-7) and off the bench (13-7). Along with John Caleb Sanders, four other Flames finished in double figures, including Minaya (16), Jesse Sanders (12), Speaks (11) and Burrus (10). Burrus finished with his first double-double of the season, adding 11 boards. Jesse Sanders narrowly missed a triple-double, chipping in 10 assists and eight rebounds.
The Lynchburg Subregional of the 2K Sports Classic concludes on Sunday. The action begins in the Vines Center with Lehigh taking on Eastern Kentucky at 2:30 p.m. Like Lehigh, the Colonels look to go 3-0 in the subregional after defeating William & Mary earlier Saturday afternoon, 63-44.
Liberty closes out the invitational with a matchup against the Tribe at 5 p.m. The Flames aim to improve to 5-1 in the all-time series, after besting William & Mary this past Monday, 75-72, in Kaplan Arena. The rematch will be broadcasted on the Liberty Channel and streamed on the Big South Network and ESPN3.com.