BY JAKE OSWALT
Lehigh’s senior guard C.J. McCollum showed Saturday why he was a preseason All-American.
McCollum entered Saturday afternoon’s game at St. Francis averaging 24.4 points per game, which ranks third in the country. He’s already been the Patriot League Player of the Year twice, and earlier this year he became the all-time leading scorer in Patriot League history (2,294 points).
Against St. Francis, he led the way with 29 points as Lehigh used a fast start to keep a comfortable lead throughout for an 83-67 victory.
“He’s a complete player,” St. Francis coach Rob Krimmel said. “He can handle the ball and can shoot it. We recruited him. He’s a kid that works on his game. You knew he was going to be good, but I don’t know if anyone knew he was going to be this good.”
Lehigh (8-2) jumped out to a 13-0 lead by making its first five shots from the field. That proved to be too big of a hole for St. Francis to come back against a talented and tournament-experienced team like Lehigh.
“When you spot a team a 13-point lead, a team that is that experienced to start the game, you dig yourself a hole that is very, very hard to get out of,” Krimmel said. “I thought our guys responded. McCollum and (Gabe) Knutson were very good tonight and made some big shots and big plays.”
St. Francis (0-8) could only cut the lead to six, the closest they came the rest of the game. That came with 8:57 left in the first half, thanks to a trio of 3-pointers by Dom Major, who finished with 15 points on five 3-pointers. Lehigh, whose only losses are to Baylor and Pittsburgh, pushed its lead to 15 at halftime thanks to 10 points each from McCollum and backcourt mate Mackey McKnight.
The second half featured back-and-forth scoring as Lehigh outscored St. Francis by a narrow 40-39 margin. St. Francis junior Umar Shannon stepped up in the second half to showcase his abilities against one of the best guards in the country. Shannon and McCollum combined to score 40 of the 79 points scored in the second half.
“I try to do what my team needed me to do,” Shannon said after he scored 21 of his team-high 26 points in the second half. “I’m not really out there to try to show off and put the ball in the basket, but if I have to, that’s what I have to do for the team.”
Lehigh received balanced scoring from Gabe Knutson (18 points) and McKnight (13 points) as it shot 50 percent from the field compared to St. Francis’ 37 percent from the field.
McCollum could have left for the NBA draft after his junior year, but chose to come back for his senior year. McCollum scored 30 points in 15th-seeded Lehigh’s 75-70 upset over second-seeded Duke last year to advance to the third round of the tournament before losing to Xavier. McCollum is projected as a lottery pick in the 2013 NBA draft and had nothing but positive things to say about returning this year.
“It’s been fun,” McCollum said. “I’ve been enjoying every minute of it, a lot of media attention, a lot of exposure and notoriety. I’ve been playing this game all my life, but I don’t feel any added pressure. I just continue to enjoy it, have fun, and let my preparation help me when it’s game time.”
When asked why he came back to Lehigh, he answered, “Getting my degree was the biggest thing. My family takes pride in education. Games like this, being a senior and travelling with your friends and teammates, just enjoying the college experience. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity.”