By Peter Gleason

For Villanova, last night’s game at Lehigh was the first step on the Road to the Final Four.

For Lehigh, it was a chance to push the Cats to the limit with little chance to win.

And both teams achieved their goals.

Lehigh scrapped, clawed and fought with nationally ranked Villanova for 36 minutes in Friday night’s season opener before losing 77-66 before a sell-out crowd at the PPL Center in Allentown.

Junior guard Dylan Ennis (photo above) scored 19 points as host Villanova overcame Lehigh’s upset bid.

“It was a great atmosphere,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “The fans were great. I thought Lehigh played outstanding. For a while I thought I was going to be talking about a loss but we found a way to get the win. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”

Villanova senior guard Darrun Hilliard had a tough homecoming, shooting going 4-for-18 from the floor, but still finished with 10 points.

“I was proud to be home,” Hilliard said. “This is a great venue. I’m proud of the Lehigh Valley. It’s great to play in this type of venue.”

Sophomore guard Austin Price scored a game and career-high 24 points for Lehigh. Sophomore center Tim Kempton registered 15 points and 10 rebounds.

“Price was awesome,” Wright said, “and Kempton is a hell of a player.”

“We played with the right mindset and mentality to compete with Villanova tonight,” Lehigh coach Brett Reed said, “but I’m disappointed because I thought we had an opportunity to take a step further than we did.”

Villanova dominated on the offensive glass where it out-rebounded Lehigh 19-4. The Wildcats also forced the Mountain Hawks into 23 turnovers while committing only nine.

“Their pressure is designed to disrupt your rhythm and flow,” Reed said. “They force turnovers. You have to give them credit. They’re such a talented team.”

Led by Kempton’s 11 first half points, Lehigh had the lead for most of the first 20 minutes. A high-arching jumper by freshman point guard Kahron Ross gave the Mountain Hawks a 10-4 lead.

A floater from the baseline by Price extended Lehigh’s lead to 14-9 and after Villanova rallied to tie it at 14-all, Price drained a step-back 3-pointer from beyond the key to put the Mountain Hawks back up by three.

Hilliard, who missed his first five shots, finally got on the board on a jumper from the elbow. But a two-handed slam by junior forward Jesse Chuku stretched Lehigh’s lead to 19-16.

Hilliard converted on a fast break for his second bucket and Ennis slithered inside for layup to give Villanova its first lead at 20-19 with 8:52 left in the half.

“We didn’t play the way we wanted to offensively,” Hilliard said, “but we grinded. We started playing Villanova basketball.”

Trailing 22-20, Lehigh suddenly went on an eight-point run to go back up 28-22. Ross had a field goal, Kempton scored twice inside, and sophomore guard Miles Simelton deposited a pull-up jumper from the win during the surge.

The Mountain Hawks’ lead was short-lived however as Ennis scored six straight points in the middle of a 10-point run to give Villanova a 32-28 advantage.

Kempton’s elbow jumper made it 32-30 at halftime.

The lead changed hands several times early in the second half. Price hit a 3 from the left of the key. Aided by 3-pointers from Price, senior guard Corey Schaefer and Simelton, Lehigh stretched its lead to 46-40. Kris Jenkins deposited a second chance 3 for Villanova but Price converted a nifty drive with his left hand and it was 48-43 Lehigh.

JayVaughn Pinkston followed with a pair of free throws for Villanova, and after Price missed two from the line, Hilliard drained a 3 at the other end to tie it at 48-48 with 12:32 remaining.

Another driving layup by Price tied it at 50-all with 11:02 left but Hilliard’s steal and emphatic two-handed stuff highlighted a 9-1 burst which put Villanova in command at 59-51 with 8:40 left.

Lehigh managed to hang around as a dunk by Chuku and Austin Price’s 3-pointer reduced the deficit to 62-58 with 4:18 left. However, Ennis made 1 of 2 from the line and after Villanova got the offensive rebound, Ennis drilled a 3-pointer to give Villanova a 66-58 lead.

Pinkston sealed the deal when he followed his own miss and converted it into a three-point play to put the Wildcats up by 11 with 2:27 left. Lehigh never challenged again.

“I’m disappointed in the loss because I feel we could have won the game,” Price said, “but I think we did our school proud. We showed we can hang with the best.”

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