American 64, Lehigh 44: Eagles get back on track by rallying past Mountain Hawks at home

American University recovered from a rough patch Wednesday to defeat Lehigh, 64-44, at Bender Arena and retain a share of first place in the Patriot League.

Darius “Pee Wee” Gardner, a 5-foot-9 junior guard, posted 17 points, six assists and five of the team’s 14 steals as the Eagles (15-9, 11-2) bounced back from a pair of losses last week and kept pace with conference favorite Boston University with five games left.

“We were down a little bit but Coach talked about on Monday [to] get over it,” Gardner said. “We didn’t think about the last two games.”

Tony Wroblicky added 15 points and 12 rebounds and Jesse Reed had 14 points for AU, which used a 32-7 surge over 16 minutes bridging halftime to sweep the series from the Mountain Hawks (13-13, 6-7).

Freshman guard Austin Price scored 14 of his 20 points in the first 12 minutes for Lehigh, which had won five of its previous six. The Eagles limited Mackey McKnight, the Mountain Hawks’ leading scorer at 13.9 ppg, to six on 1-of-5 shooting. He had six of the team’s 21 turnovers (13 in the first half).

AU yielded its fewest points in two years, limiting the Mountain Hawks to 35 percent shooting.

“It was mostly defense,” Eagles Coach Mike Brennan said, reflecting on surprise losses to Loyola and Colgate.

It was also turnovers (33 in the two games) and an inability to get to the free throw line. The Eagles continued to give up the ball (17 turnovers) but were sharper in their half-court offense, scored 15 fast-break points and made 15 of 18 free throws.

“One of the things Coach has harped on us is running the offense harder and being crisper in everything we did,” Wroblicky said. “It showed.”

The victory all but clinched a top-four finish and home-court advantage in the Patriot quarterfinals next month.

Price, averaging 8.5 points, scored 14 of Lehigh’s first 18, including a tap-in of his own miss that prompted an exasperated Brennan to call a timeout.

Shooting 27 percent and trailing by six, the Eagles began to click. They embarked on a 13-0 run by moving the ball fluidly for open shots and converting in transition. The defense keyed the run, allowing one field goal and forcing nine turnovers over the last eight minutes to build a 27-20 intermission lead.

The three starting guards combined for eight steals in the half.

Freshman guard Charlie Jones (1.1 ppg) provided a lift as well, making a jumper and soaring to block a corner three-point attempt with one second left.

The Eagles did not let up after the break. Gardner scored seven straight, darting on the fast break twice and collecting Wroblicky’s back-door pass. Reed’s five consecutive points pushed the lead to 18.

AU’s pressure continued to force turnovers. In the first eight minutes of the half, Lehigh was 2 for 9 with five turnovers.

Ahead by 19, the Eagles became tentative and allowed the Mountain Hawks to close to within 46-36 with 6½ minutes left. But Reed drove to the basket and John Schoof hit a three-pointer to restore order.

Schoof, who made five threes in last month’s meeting, finished with 12 points on 4-of-5 three-point shooting.

Brennan utilized his bench throughout the night, providing longer breaks for Gardner, who played 23 minutes after averaging 37.5 minutes.

“I’ve been killing these guys, playing them 40 minutes,” Brennan said. “I know we are going to need more from other people.”

Steven Goff is The Post’s soccer writer. His beats include D.C. United, MLS and the international game, as well as local college basketball.
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