The highly anticipated showdown between a pair of potential NBA lottery picks in North Texas forward Tony Mitchell and Lehigh guard C.J. McCollum never materialized Thursday.
Lehigh was expected to roll out the nation’s leading scorer and the hero of its win over Duke in last season’s NCAA tournament in front of 59 NBA team executives and a crowd of 4,955 at the Super Pit.
McCollum was nowhere to be found when tip time came.
That made the way Lehigh rolled to a 90-75 win even tougher for the Mean Green to take.
Lehigh held McCollum out because of a sprained ankle he suffered in practice this week — a decision the coaching staff didn’t make until game time, leaving the Mountain Hawks shorthanded.
Lehigh (9-2) rolled anyway on a night the Mean Green (5-7) saw another chance to earn a signature win, not to mention one that could turn its season around, slip through its hands.
“It’s definitely hard,” UNT guard Alzee Williams said. “We were all pumped up about this game. We thought we were going to win.”
UNT had all the more reason to believe that would be the case with McCollum out. The 6-3 senior guard came into the week leading the nation in scoring with an average of 24.9 points a game.
McCollum was a big reason Lehigh came into the night having scored at least 80 points in four of its last five games.
The Mountain Hawks made it five of six behind Gabe Knutson, who scored a game-high 28 points.
Knutson hit all but one of the five 3-pointers he attempted against UNT, which struggled to contain Lehigh on the perimeter.
The Mountain Hawks hit 11 of their 23 attempts from beyond the arc and had four players hit at least two 3s. Mackey McKnight hit two 3s and finished with 25 points, while Holden Greiner added 15 points.
“They have really good players and are so efficient,” UNT coach Tony Benford said. “They share the ball. When you have a team that is shooting like that, if you can’t contain the ball, they get you rotating and it is tough to get to them.”
UNT didn’t get there often enough and struggled to keep pace.
Mitchell didn’t start because of what Benford described as a minor violation of team rules. He came off the bench to score 22 points and lead three UNT players who finished in double figures.
Alzee Williams added 20 points and Jordan Williams scored 12.
“We scored 75 points,” Benford said. “That should be enough to win at home.”
Early on it appeared that UNT had a chance to pull off the minor upset.
UNT led 21-18 in the first half before the game turned on a foul call on Justin Patton. The UNT forward took the ball to the basket. One official called a charge while another called a foul.
After conferring, the foul was called on Patton.
Lehigh immediately went on a 7-0 run. Knutson hit a layup and then a 3-pointer to spark the surge.
It was all downhill from there for UNT, which struggled defensively in the first half as Lehigh hit eight 3-pointers. The last of those came when McKnight hit a 3 on a heave from just beyond the opposite 3-point line at the buzzer to give Lehigh a 52-33 halftime lead.
UNT worked on defending the 3-point arc all week but still struggled to keep up with Lehigh.
“We are not as quick on the perimeter,” Benford said. “When we lost Brandan Walton, that really hurt us.”
Walton, an injured senior guard, was one of UNT’s better on-ball defenders and has the speed and quickness to keep up with smaller guards.
UNT spent the night chasing and often not catching Lehigh’s shooters, who ended up stealing the show on a night that was expected to feature McCollum and Mitchell.
“We were surprised he didn’t play,” Mitchell said. “It wasn’t about C.J. We didn’t execute on offense or defense. You can’t do that and win.”
That’s especially true in a game against one of the nation’s best mid-major programs.
“When we scheduled this game, we knew that they are a great ballclub, an NCAA tournament team, well-coached with really good players,” Benford said. “It’s not just C.J. McCollum. They proved that tonight.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org .
Lehigh 90, North Texas 75
LEHIGH (9-2) — Greiner 6-11 3-4 15, Knutson 10-14 4-4 28, D’Orazio 3-7 0-1 8, McKnight 8-18 7-9 25, Cvkalj 0-0 0-0 0, Carter 0-0 0-0 0, Goodman 0-0 0-0 0, Bailey 1-5 0-0 3, Schaefer 3-8 0-0 8, Staggers 0-0 0-0 0, Goldsborough 1-1 1-1 3, Baltimore 0-2 0-0 0. Totals 32-66 15-19 90.
NORTH TEXAS (5-7) — Holmen 3-7 0-0 6, Stojiljkovic 0-1 0-0 0, Franklin 4-10 1-1 9, Jones 0-8 0-0 0, J. Williams 4-10 4-5 12, A. Williams 6-14 8-8 20, Hardwick 1-1 0-0 2, Mitchell 0-0 0-0 0, Patton 0-4 2-2 2, Mitchell 8-13 5-9 22, Overlander 1-3 0-0 2, Coleman 0-0 0-2 0. Totals 27-71 20-27 75.
Halftime — Lehigh 52-33. 3-point goals — Lehigh 11-23 (Greiner 0-2, Knutson 4-5, D’Orazio 2-3, McKnight 2-6, Bailey 1-3, Schaefer 2-4). UNT 1-11 (Holmen 0-1, Stojiljkovic 0-1, J. Williams 0-2, A. Williams 0-1, Patton 0-2, Mitchell 1-2, Overlander 0-2). Fouled out — none. Rebounds — Lehigh 36 (Greiner 8), UNT 48 (Mitchell 9). Assists — Lehigh 21 (McKnight 7), UNT 10 (Jones 4). Total fouls — Lehigh 21, UNT 17. Technical fouls — Stojiljkovic. A — 4,955.