March 23, 2021 

Patriot League notebook: Lehigh falls in NCAAs

No. 17 West Virginia advances with a 77-53 win

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Lehigh sophomore Frannie Hottinger and her teammates had their sights set on a first-round battle with #17 West Virginia. Photo credit: Mark Sobhani/Lehigh Athletics

Everyone loves an underdog. It’s those Cinderella stories in the NCAA Tournament that stir emotions in fans, swell hearts, and then break them.

Lehigh came into its first-round NCAA game against the No. 17 West Virginia University Mountaineers as a big underdog. And whether you follow Lehigh and the Patriot league regularly, or found them a few hours before tip-off in search of that opportunity to root for a big upset of the tournament, those dreams of finding a shocking result faded in the third quarter.

Lehigh endured a late second-quarter 10-0 run from the Mountaineers and went into halftime trailing 36-26. But after cutting the deficit to eight in the third quarter, the team began to tire—and like a weary boxer trying to get to the next round on their feet, the bell for the end of the round just couldn’t come fast enough.

Following an Emma Grothaus layup that pulled Lehigh into a 44-36 game with 5:30 left in the third, the Mountaineers responded with a 21-3 run, including a 16-0 flurry to finish the frame. The dreams of an upset were dashed by the half-court pressure defense of the WVU guards—which forced five turnovers in the quarter. The Mountaineers went on to a 77-53 win and advance to play five-seed, Georgia Tech.

Lehigh head coach Sue Troyan acknowledged the increasing challenge of facing the Mountaineer defense as her group wore down in the third quarter:

I give West Virginia a lot of credit. I thought they came out, particularly in the second half, and really established themselves on the defensive end. [They] kind of took us out of our offensive flow.

West Virginia’s athleticism, speed, and length made it difficult from the start, but Lehigh never backed down and played fearlessly throughout. The Mountain Hawks stayed true to who they are, maintaining a similar game approach on each end of the floor, mixing zone and man-to-man coverages on defense, and running their motion offense while attempting a lot of three-pointers (30 attempts in all).

On offense, Lehigh tried to run their motion action against a Mountaineer defense that contested most passes on the wings and made it difficult to allow for the movement required in the half-court to create open opportunities.

The backdoor chances against the overplaying defense were difficult to execute against a team with the speed to recover on quick cuts and a passer under constant duress. And, as fatigue set in, the shrinking spacing on offense added to the already difficult challenge of getting reversals on each possession.

Lehigh didn’t play a game against a team as talented as West Virginia all season. While the Mountaineers came into the game having played 27 games, including six non-conference match-ups, the Mountain Hawks played just 15 games—and none featuring teams outside of the Patriot League.

Due to the pandemic, the Patriot League did not allow its members—except for Army and Navy—to compete in non-conference games. The outcome might have remained the same—13-seeds have won just seven times in tournament history—but game experience versus elite talent outside of the league is an invaluable preparation experience. Troyan shares her view:

Typically, our non-conference schedule would prepare us for a game like this because we tend to play two or three teams that are above our level, but we only had the opportunity to play 15 Patriot League games this season. That probably hurt us a little bit, honestly, coming into this game. We were with them for about the first half and I think it got a little bit away from us just in terms of the speed and athleticism piece of it.

There’s a lot to admire about the team from Lehigh—it endured one of the most challenging seasons in NCAA history and won its league. The group’s resiliency through the pandemic and its triumph over personal tragedy—the death of Grothaus’s mother earlier this year–are what will define its season.

Like a Cinderella story on the court in the NCAAs, it may have failed. As a profile in heart and courage, it was a total success.

Top takeaways from West Virginia’s win over Lehigh

Kysre Gondrezick is really good. The Mountaineers senior guard scored 26 points on 9-for-15 shooting from the floor. She was also on fire from deep, converting 6-of-8 three-pointers, including three straight that helped fuel a game-turning 10-0 run to close the second quarter. She reached 1,000 career points for WVU and now has 1,500 points in her NCAA career.

Gondrezick feasted on the Mountain Hawks’ decision to go under ball screens on her, especially in the decisive third quarter when she was a perfect 3-for-3 from the field, including a three-pointer.

The AP All-American honorable mention led a smothering defensive effort, securing four steals and helping limit the Mountain Hawks to a 31.0% shooting performance (19-for-62).

Lehigh ran out of gas. West Virginia’s size, strength, and physicality had a cumulative effect. The Mountain Hawks played an impressive first quarter on both ends and trailed just 15-13, at the end of the frame. But the intensity and pace of the game quickly wore on Lehigh and, after a Hottinger jumper to tie the game at 26-26, fatigue started to set in. West Virginia closed the half with a 10-0 run to lead 36-26.

The Mountain Hawks battled deep into the third quarter on equal terms, fighting to execute their offense and scrapping to mount a swarming defensive effort of their own. A Grothaus three-pointer cut the margin to 10 at 49-39 with 3:46 left, but the WVU defense tightened its pressure and wore Lehigh down. The Mountaineers finished the frame on a 16-0 run to put the game out of reach.

West Virginia shot 10-for-13 from the field in the third quarter as the Mountain Hawks’ defense ran out of gas. Gondrezick and KK Deans (19 points, 8 rebounds, on 7-for-10 shooting) got increasingly cleaner looks against a unit struggling to close out and contest shots.

Emma Grothaus played her best game. Grothaus scored a team-high 14 points and grabbed 7 rebounds while committing just three turnovers. She shot 6-for-14 from the field.

The junior forward held her ground against the Mountaineers’ post tandem of 6’2 Esmery Martinez (16 point, 11 rebounds) and 6’1 Kari Niblack (9 points, 2 rebounds). Martinez was an All-Big 12 first-team selection this season while Grothaus did not place as a season honoree in the Patriot League. Lehigh narrowly lost the battle for points in the paint, 22-18.

She finished the season averaging 11.3 points and 6.8 rebounds a game but saved her best for down the stretch of the season. Over the final five games of the season, Grothaus posted 14.8 points and 8.0 boards per game, leading her team to the league title.

Lehigh couldn’t run its offense. The aggressive Mountaineer defense really took Lehigh out of its comfort zone. The quick and easy reversals in its motion offense were next to impossible to execute with WVU overplaying one pass away.

Lehigh did not have the spacing or the quickness in its cuts to effectively backdoor the Mountaineer defenders. The aggressive on-ball defense forced more pace from the Mountain Hawks, and quick threes and turnovers turned into transition attacks in the other direction and added to the fatigue factor. Lehigh committed 18 turnovers which led to 21 West Virginia points.

Frannie Hottinger is fearless. Hottinger was one of just two players for Lehigh who could successfully find their shot in the paint or mid-range. Despite facing more physically imposing players inside, and quicker defenders on the perimeter, Hottinger continued to look for ways to score.

The sophomore found it more difficult to put the ball on the floor and was harassed into six turnovers by the length and athleticism of the WVU defense. Hottinger shot just 5-for-16 and grabbed five rebounds, but she never stopped attacking—and the experience will make her one of the top scorers in the Patriot League again next season.

Written by Todd Goclowski

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