This month, we asked our writers to revisit their most indelible memories of 2012.
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If any 6,000-seat arena can be labeled “cavernous,” it’s Stabler Arena, down the hill from the campus of Lehigh University, a big-box gym that could probably be converted into a Wal-Mart if needed. It’s perfectly suitable for basketball, but home games are often sparsely attended, because this isn’t Duke, it’s the Patriot League.
The night of March 16, 2012, starkly contrasted a typical Friday evening in the life of Lehigh basketball.
They did it in Greensboro, N.C., the second home of Duke basketball, a place where ACC championships are won and early-round NCAA tournament victories are assumed. They did it in front of a small pack of their hometown fans, thousands of adopted in-arena fans, and millions of Duke enemies across the country, soaking up every moment of the Blue Devils’ despair, a national power and No. 2 seed doing the unthinkable and losing to the No. 15 seed from Bethlehem, Pa., champions of the Patriot League, winners of precisely zero NCAA tournament games until that glorious Friday night.
The Mountain Hawks won 75-70 behind star guard C.J. McCollum, forever altering the perception of Lehigh basketball.
"They had the best player on the court tonight in McCollum,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said.
“Definitely,” Lehigh guard C.J. McCollum said when asked if he was the best player on the court. “I don’t mean to sound cocky or anything like that, but I work extremely hard and I felt like it was a good matchup for myself and my team.”
This wasn’t any post-upset, throw-your-hands-up-and-compliment-the-opponent coach-speak from Coach K. No, McCollum was legitimately better than anyone on Duke, the home of five-star recruits and perennially top-ranked recruiting classes. He slipped through the cracks, the unheralded recruit from Canton, Ohio, the rare Patriot League pro prospect, trying to become the first player drafted from the conference since Colgate’s Adonal Foyle in 1997.
He made only nine of 24 shots, but by the time he was finished with Duke, he had scored 30 points, making 10 free throws while adding six rebounds, six assists and two steals, showing the confidence of an NBA All-Star on a big stage.
But it wasn’t only McCollum who got hot and fueled the upset. Big man Gabe Knutson made all five of his field goal attempts and scored 17. John Adams grabbed eight rebounds. Jordan Hamilton helped put the game away with a dunk to go up by five with under 30 seconds left. Lehigh lacked depth, but it didn’t matter. The starting lineup played like it belonged on the same court as Duke, then backed up that attitude, no matter how nerve-racking it was for the audience.
Watching an upset brew in basketball is a never-ending panic, a non-stop sense of impending doom, because for as often as a big underdog starts fast or hangs around, collapse seems inevitable. Behind a player like McCollum, a team like Lehigh can make some noise for a bit -- especially if the favorite’s shots don’t fall, like Seth Curry in this one (one of nine) -- but a drought or a run by the opposition is always around the corner, which is what more or less happened in Lehigh’s previous tournament appearance as a 16-seed against Kansas in 2010.
Somehow, this was different. Somehow, Lehigh played with the confidence of a top seed, capitalizing on Duke’s mistakes and poor shooting, turning the ball over only eight times, hanging tough in the rebounding battle, and doing something that goes against every Duke-hating assumption: committing four fewer fouls than the Blue Devils.
Cheers echoed through Greensboro Coliseum; UNC fans, who early in the day had watched their top-seeded Tar Heels blow out Vermont, stayed and reveled in the failure of their archrivals to win even one tournament game, to beat a lousy 15th seed, their season down in flames as the upstarts from the Lehigh Valley ended Duke’s run for glory before it could even begin. Cheers echoed back home in the streets of Bethlehem, a place not exactly known for celebrating basketball wins in the streets. Cheers echoed through homes and bars around the country, where rooting against Duke has become a national pastime on par with rooting against the Yankees. If you’re not with them, you’re almost certainly against them.
Duke will always have its chances, at least as long as Krzyzewski sticks around. The Blue Devils get the best players. They’re No. 1 right now. March 16th was devastating, but, in the long run, it’s a blip on the radar in Durham, a day to be forgotten as the Blue Devils move on and search for their second national title in four seasons. There’s always next year, in a we’re-always-really-good way, not a we’re-the-Cleveland-Browns kind of way.
For Lehigh, it was a program-defining win. The first and only of its kind. One that made the Mountain Hawks national darlings, one that made C.J. McCollum, a junior already known by scouts, a household name nationally.
Perhaps they’re good enough to do it again. Their only pre-Christmas losses this season came on the road against Baylor and Pitt. McCollum is averaging nearly 25 points per game. But there isn’t always a next year. Lehigh basketball could go a century before matching the magic of that night, the perfect storm of an underrated small-time school with unusually talented players facing a rattled juggernaut knocked off its game.
For one night only, Lehigh was America’s team, and no matter how cynical one gets about the state of major college sports, it was a moment any non-Blue Devil could enjoy, the kind of night sports fans are always waiting for, the kind of night that defines March Madness.