March 20, 2021 

Patriot League notebook: Lehigh takes on West Virginia in the NCAA Tournament

How can Lehigh pull off the first-round upset?

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Megan Walker and Lehigh are in search of a first-round upset against West Virginia. Photo credit: Hannahally Photography/Lehigh Athletics

Lehigh’s plane touched down in Texas on Tuesday and, following a mandatory 48-hour quarantine period, March Madness officially began. The 13-seed Mountain Hawks face the 4-seed West Virginia Mountaineers on Sunday in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Can Lehigh pull off the upset?

The Patriot League has just one win in its NCAA Tournament history—Holy Cross’s 81-74 victory over Maryland in 1991. The league has been dancing around other big upsets since then, so why not this year?

It seems like a long shot at first glance, but previous tournament results show that looks can be deceiving: Bucknell nearly knocked off Florida State in 2019, falling 70-67. And in 2018, American fell to UCLA 70-61 in Los Angeles. Can we expect another close call?

Let’s take a look at the match-up and what to watch for as Lehigh aims for its biggest win on the brightest stage. And what does Villanova have to do with it? Here’s what you need to know:

How did West Virginia and Lehigh get here?

The 21-6 WVU team enters the NCAA Tournament following a loss in the Big 12 title game to #5 Baylor, 76-50, and ranked #17 in the country in the most recent AP poll. Three of the Mountaineers’ six losses have come against Baylor, which is one of a half dozen teams favored to win the national championship.

WVU is one of five Big 12 teams in the field and has a 5-5 record against that group this season. Its resume also includes a 79-73 win over #13 Tennessee.

The Mountaineers are led by AP All-American honorable mention Kysre Gondrezick (19.9 ppg) and forward Esmery Martinez (13.6 ppg, 11.7 rpg). Sophomore guard KK Deans has emerged as the team’s defensive stopper.

Deans has also taken over the point guard duties for Madisen Smith, who suffered a lower leg injury on February 20th against TCU and is questionable to return for the NCAA Tournament.

Lehigh earned its trip to San Antonio with a 64-54 win over Boston University in the Patriot League Championship. The Mountain Hawks were led by tournament MVP Emma Grothaus. The junior forward posted 12 points and 8 rebounds in 36 minutes of action. Sophomore Frannie Hottinger also added a team-high 21 points in the final.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Patriot League did not allow its members—with the exception of Army and Navy—to compete in non-conference games. There are no common opponents with West Virginia to use as measuring sticks.

Lehigh head coach Sue Troyan believes her team’s placement in the Patriot League’s toughest division has prepared her group for the test of a team like West Virginia. The Mountain Hawks faced Bucknell—the league’s top program the last three seasons—five times this year and defeated them in the semifinals.

We beat two top-100 teams when you look at NET rankings. I think we’re around 75-78; Bucknell is around 40. So we played six of our games against top-100 teams. And I think it will prepare us for the tournament. We’re a tough team with our ability to shoot the ball.

Lehigh led the Patriot League in scoring and is sixth in the nation with 72.2 points per game. The Mountain Hawks make 9.8 3-point shots per game.

Lehigh Hall of Famer Anne Tierney led the Mountain Hawks to a win in the program’s only game versus West Virginia. Photo credit: Lehigh Athletics

Do I know you? You look familiar

Lehigh and West Virginia have met just one time. The Mountain Hawks played WVU in the 1999-2000 season in the Tulane Double Tree Classic in New Orleans, Louisiana. Lehigh won, 89-73.

Freshman forward Anne Tierney scored 22 points and led four players in double figures. Current head coach Sue Troyan was in her fifth season as lead mentor for the Mountain Hawks. Tierney went on to earn Rookie of the Year and First-Team All-Patriot that year.

West Virginia finished that season with a 6-22 record. Lehigh was 13-16.

While the two teams haven’t faced off in 21 years, there is some level of familiarity—and it could factor into the outcome of the game. West Virginia head coach Mike Carey has seen a version of Lehigh’s motion offense before when WVU competed against Villanova as members of the Big East.

Former Wildcat mentor Harry Perretta created a similar five-out motion and used it regularly until modifying it in the latter stages of his coaching career. Carey has already noticed the similarity:

They remind me a little bit of when we used to be in the Big East and would have to play Villanova, some of the sets they run with the curls and flares and that type of stuff. So we’ll have to get out and guard them.

WVU and Villanova last faced each other in postseason play at the 2019 WNIT, with the Mountaineers winning, 64-57. Will the understanding of that system help Carey and his coaching staff map out a successful game plan? Or is his team’s 8-10 record against Perretta’s Villanova teams a sign that Lehigh can compete and win using a similar system?

It’s been a minute

The Lehigh and West Virginia head coaches have been dancing before, but it’s been a while. Carey has led the Mountaineers to the NCAA Tournament 11 times, but this is WVU’s first appearance since 2016-17, when they defeated Elon, 75-62, and then fell to third-ranked Maryland, 83-56. Carey’s record in the tournament is 8-10.

Troyan has guided her program to four appearances, but Lehigh’s last NCAA Tournament appearance was in 2010—also as a 13-seed. The Mountain Hawks lost to Iowa State, 79-42. The Mountain Hawks are 0-3 all-time and are seeking their first win on Sunday.

13-seeds have won a game in the tournament seven times, and the most recent was in 2012, when Marist knocked off Georgia, 76-70.

Graphic courtesy of the NCAA

NCAA Tournament First Round

(4) West Virginia University (21-6) vs (13) Lehigh Mountain Hawks (10-5)

What are the keys for Lehigh to pull off the upset?

Focus on defensive transition. Lehigh hasn’t seen a team all season with the Mountaineers’ combination of speed and rebounding ability. What does that mean? It translates to WVU’s ability to run and attack in transition. The Mountain Hawks are used to setting the pace with their depth and tempo, but they’ll be facing a team that has the tools to push the ball, too.

Protecting the paint is the key. Lehigh will likely want to get into a zone defense on most possessions, and it’s going to have to try to set its preferred defense, make-or-miss. This will be a challenge, especially when the top task is slowing down WVU guard Kysre Gondrezick.

An AP All-American honorable mention this season, Gondrezick is extremely good in transition and is an attacking scorer who can also create space for her jumper. She averages 19.9 points per game and has led her squad in scoring 17 times this season. Lehigh has to slow her down in the open court and limit her driving lanes in the half-court to win; that’s going to take a collective effort.

Lehigh is playing its best defense of the season. In impressive wins last week over Bucknell and Boston University—the top two seeds in the league tournament—Lehigh did an exceptional job of setting its defense and confusing its opponents with varied looks. But the Mountain Hawks were able to fall back into their defensive alignments due to a very deliberate and controlled approach on offense from the opposition. Those teams’ desire to execute at a slower pace, and in controlled sets, benefitted Lehigh.

That’s not the style of play Lehigh is going to see out of West Virginia. There has to be an urgency to decelerate WVU’s transition game and early offense, and that means slowing down Gondrezick when she’s on the floor. Transition defense must be a priority to give the half-court defense a chance.

Rebound to win. One of the most curious stats for Lehigh is its rebounding numbers. The Mountain Hawks have only won the rebounding battle in four games this season—none of which were the conference semifinal or championship. They have a -2.5 rebounding margin and finished in the bottom half of the Patriot League in offensive rebounding—yet they still won the conference tournament. So why is their work on the boards more important against West Virginia?

There are two reasons: Esmery Martinez and Kari Niblack. The Mountaineer forwards present a length and physicality Lehigh hasn’t seen this season, and they are in position to determine the game. Martinez (13.6 ppg, 11.7 rpg) and Niblack (9.0 ppg, 5.2 rpg) present a problem for Lehigh in two ways: interior scoring and offensive rebounding.

Both forwards are capable of exceeding their numbers in this match-up, and keeping the Mountaineers off the offensive glass must be a top priority. Lehigh doesn’t have a dominant rebounder—Hottinger and Emma Grothaus lead a rebound-by-committee approach with 6.7 boards per game each.

Lehigh is battle-tested, having defeated the two most physical teams in the league in the conference playoffs. But WVU presents a different challenge, especially in the form of 6’2 sophomore Martinez. She made the All-Big 12 First Team and is 11th in the nation in rebounds per game. She has 14 double-doubles on the season.

WVU is the third-best rebounding team in the Big 12, and to compete on the boards, the Mountain Hawks will have to specifically target Martinez. She anticipates missed shots well and is capable of finishing inside. When she is active on the boards and involved on the offensive end, her presence and activity as an interior defender grows. She leads the team in steals with 53.

KK Deans is also one to watch. The 5’8 sophomore is WVU’s top rebounding guard, grabbing 3.8 per game. She also averages 13.6 points per game.

The Mountain Hawks can win without a strong effort on their offensive boards, especially if the trade-off is getting back in transition to set their defense. But they won’t win if they allow WVU to dominate its offensive boards and convert misses into easy follow-ups at the rim. If the Mountain Hawks can limit the Mountaineers’ extra possessions, they’ll be in the game.

Space the floor. The most important ingredient on the offensive end for Lehigh is its spacing. It has to keep the floor spread to make WVU pay for its aggressive defense on the wings and allow the space for cuts and fills in the offense. Passing will be more difficult against their quicker guards, and a shrinking half-court on offense will make it even more difficult to move the ball effectively.

The team’s motion offense will be challenged to get easy ball reversals against WVU’s defense. Lehigh will be forced to be tougher with the ball and use its counters—backdoor cuts and fill-in cuts—to keep movement in its offense.

As the game wears on and fatigue sets in, Lehigh will have to guard against the tendency to shrink its spacing toward the basket. When those passes become more difficult to make in tighter spaces and with fewer clear passing lanes, Lehigh must place a premium on the discipline of its spacing and movement.

Lehigh will be tempted to play quicker when the defensive pressure increases—and those are the moments in which they must exhibit the most patience and continue to move and share the ball as they attempt to grind down the defense.

Limit turnovers. Lehigh has to keep WVU from easy transition opportunities. The Mountain Hawks have a 1.32 assist-to-turnover ratio—11th-best in the nation—and they’ll need to take good care of the ball to have a chance in this game. To succeed, they’ll have to avoid the live-ball turnovers that Gondrezick and Deans can quickly convert into scoring chances.

Lehigh point guard Clair Steele has been an unheralded hero of her group down the stretch, especially in the playoffs, but she’ll be challenged in the backcourt by Deans and Jayla Hemingway, who has started the last six games for WVU.

Steele averages 7.0 points per game and her presence on the floor keeps Lehigh’s offense flowing. She didn’t commit a turnover in the semifinal or the championship game. She’ll be forced to put the ball on the floor under pressure, and her decision-making in the teeth of the defense will be crucial.

In Lehigh’s motion offense with everyone handling the ball, Steele won’t carry the responsibility alone—it’ll be a group effort to value the ball and exercise discipline and patience against the most athletic defense they have faced all season.

WVU’s size and speed are huge advantages, and the Mountain Hawks could find themselves fighting uphill if early miscues lead to easy points. If they can limit those chances and maintain ball control, they’ll have a chance.

Sophomore Frannie Hottinger will be the focus of the West Virginia defense. She leads Lehigh with 14.3 points per game. Photo credit: Hannahally Photogrpahy/Lehigh Athletics

Player to watch for Lehigh

Frannie Hottinger. The 6’0 wing has been a scoring surprise for Lehigh, averaging a team-high 14.3 points per game and shooting 45.0% from the floor. The sophomore played just 7.7 minutes a game last season but has earned 14 starts this year and plays 26.0 minutes an outing.

Hottinger will be a focus of the WVU defense, and her ability to adjust to the physicality and length she’ll face when attacking the middle of the floor will be key. The sophomore played brilliantly in the league championship, scoring 21 points without committing a turnover. She’ll need that poise and presence against the Mountaineers for Lehigh to be successful.

Hottinger will likely see a lot of Deans, the best defender for WVU who usually draws the opposing team’s top scorer. She’ll make things difficult for Hottinger on the perimeter. Can Lehigh succeed by taking her inside?

Another match-up puzzle worth monitoring is who WVU assigns to defend her when Lehigh goes to its smaller lineup. Will Hottinger draw a post defender? A battle in the paint against the Mountaineers’ 6’1 junior forward Kari Niblack would be one to watch. Hottinger is exceptional at finding space for her shot in traffic, and Niblack is one of the best shot-blockers in the Big 12 and fifth all-time for WVU with 143 career blocks. Will Lehigh make use of Hottinger’s 3-point shooting in this pairing and draw Niblack away from the basket? She’s 17-for-50 (34.0%) from distance this season.

The Hottinger match-up will the one to keep an eye on—and her numbers will be the most determinative of Lehigh’s success or failure in the game.

Player to watch for West Virginia

Kysre Gondrezick. The 5’9 redshirt senior has dominated the ball more in the last seven games, averaging 17.2 points, 2.5 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game in the absence of point guard Madisen Smith. She’s the key to the WVU offense and will be the best player on the floor in this game. She’s a playmaker who can score at all three levels and should be the focus of the Lehigh defense.

Gondrezick currently leads the Mountaineers in assists (117) and is second on the team in steals (41) this season, and she’s also one of the best scorers in the Big 12. She has scored 517 points this year and has 1,474 in her career.

Lehigh will feel her presence on the defensive end, too: She had eight steals in a 72-71 loss to Oklahoma on February 13th.

When and where to watch: Lehigh University at West Virginia University, Sunday, March 21st, 8:00 p.m. ET on ESPNU

News and notes

  • Related note regarding the Mountaineers’ experience facing the Lehigh offense, an adopted motion set from former Villanova coach Harry Perretta: one of the starters on that Villanova team that lost to WVU in the 2019 WNIT might sound familiar to Patriot League fans. Boston University’s Emily Esposito started that game for the Wildcats, played 33 minutes and scored 10 points on 5-for-11 shooting. She transferred following that season.

  • West Virginia head coach Mike Carey earned his 500th career win against one of the top teams in the Patriot League. On December 28, 2011, Carey’s squad defeated Bucknell 72-30, for the milestone.

  • Carey has led the Mountaineers to the NCAAs 11 times.

  • Despite an 11-year gap in tournament appearances, Lehigh’s match-up against West Virginia is its second consecutive NCAA Tournament game against a Big 12 team. Iowa State defeated the Mountain Hawks 79-42 in Ames, Iowa, in 2010.

  • Lehigh is 6-0 when forcing 15 or more turnovers this season.

  • Under Carey, West Virginia has won its opening round game eight times but has never advanced to the Sweet Sixteen. The 1991-92 team is the only West Virginia team to advance to the third round.

  • Lehigh point guard Clair Steele is ranked 81st nationally in assists per game. She topped the Patriot League this season with 4.3 a game.

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Written by Todd Goclowski

Todd Goclowski currently covers the Patriot League for The Next. Goclowski brings 25 years of coaching experience to his role as an analyst and writer, including 19 years of coaching women's basketball in the NCAA at the D1 and D3 levels.

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