Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Lehigh Is Dancin'!

When my wife and I drove up to Stabler to watch the Rivalry-tinged Patriot League women's basketball championship game yesterday against Lafayette, we saw a sharp-shinned hawk perched on a speed limit sign. Really.

Despite this signal of good fortune, I was still nervous about the championship game.

I know it didn't make much sense if you saw the matchup on paper - the No. 1-seeded Mountain Hawks were 25-6 and undefeated at home, and the No. 7-seeded Leopards were 10-21 and had been crushed by Lehigh in their two regular-season meetings.

But this Lafayette team was different now. They had hit their stride with their two shock wins against American and Navy in front of quasi-home crowds. Now, fueled by "The Rivalry" and a nationally-televised game on ESPNU, the Lady Leopards had nothing to lose, and the Lady Hawks everything.

It was everything a college basketball fan could ask for.

Sure, Lehigh did their best to make the result inevitable early on. After both teams showed their jitters early in the nationally-televised game, junior G Alex Ross exploded. She had the best half shooting for Lehigh women's basketball that I've ever seen - going 6-for-9 from 3-point land en route to 20 points, while sophomore G Erica Prosser happily kept dishing the ball to her. Lehigh jumped out to a 37-27 halftime lead, after a crucial period where Lehigh's defense held the Lady Leopards scoreless for 5 minutes. Senior F Haly Crites dominated the boards and dished out two assists as well during that time.

But this one was far from over.

Sophomore F Elizabeth Virgin, after picking up two quick first-half fouls and spending a long time on the Leopard bench in the first half, knocked down two quick buckets in the second half to cut the deficit. With the Leopards doubling down on Ross in the second half, Lehigh was clearly knocked out of their comfort zone as they made their first move. Senior F Meghan Malone helped get it to within 3 for the Leopards - but then senior C Melissa Rich, as she's done all season, made a big lay-up and two big free-throws to bring the lead back to ten.

With eight minutes to play, sparked by a huge 3 pointer by senior G Jessica Spicer and a big bucket by senior F Emily Garner, the Lady Leopards cut the deficit to 2 - and then 1 with 2 minutes to play, thanks to a heroic defensive stand.

With everything on the line, though, the same defensive machine that stopped Army last weekend kicked into gear for the Lady Hawks. While a multitude of Lady Hawks got them to this point, it was the play of senior G Tricia Smith which got Lehigh the championship in the last four minutes of the game. With Lafayette having a chance to take the lead, Crites' block of Lafayette sophomore F LaKeisha Wright's jumper led to Smith's slashing layup to make it a three-point deficit. Smith would also grab two rebounds and make two final free throws to give the Lehigh women's basketball team their first NCAA tournament berth since the 1990's.

The "Rivalry"-themed crowd, 2,339 strong, was loud and feisty. Brown-clad Lehigh fans and white-clad Lafayette fans laid into the refs, the opposing teams - and even laid into the cheerleaders. (Some of the loudest boos - and cheers - came when the Lehigh and Lafayette cheerleaders and dance teams performed during the media timeouts.) While Lafayette didn't bring a pep band, Lehigh's musicians lit up the student section. Fans stood up during the last two minutes of unbearable tension.

The intensity of "The Rivalry" was definitely in the gym, even at halftime. The basketball shootout - where fans come onto the court and try to be the last shooter standing - came down to a white-clad Lafayette fan and a Brown-clad Lehigh fan (who was actually senior DB Brendan VanAckeren). When VanAckeren made the final jumper from the foul line to win the shoot-out, he was mobbed - even something as innocent as a halftime contest ended with "Rivalry" overtones. (That and the cheers: "Just like football!" - coming from the student section.)

But it was the ladies that actually were able to achieve so much of their "Bucket List" during the season that were the biggest story on the evening. It was their night - once again, a complete team performance earned against a gritty performance by the team that beat "that school in Easton". Even head coach Sue Troyan seemed to sense it - she stepped out of the way of the cameras while watching her team celebrate. This was theirs.

Perfect at home, in front of a raucous brown-shirted mob, after the perfect final against the perfect opponent - and now waiting to see who they'll be matched up against in the NCAA tournament. It's the best of times right now for Lehigh women's basketball.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Weekend Wrapup: An Unexpected "Rivalry" Finale, and the "Lucky Seven" EIWA finishers

It sure didn't look like this was going to be how the Patriot League women's basketball championship would end up going into the tournament. Not so much No. 1-seeded Lehigh's presence in the tournament - but that the opponent is the No. 7 seed Lehigh fans love to hate.

My family and I were there yesterday, watching Lehigh overcome a slow start and a three point deficit at halftime to finally overwhelm the Army Lady Knights 61-42. Facing off against an Army team that beat the Lady Hawks 54-52 at Christl Arena and who gave them a run for their money in a 66-58 game on Valentine's day in Stabler, I was worried about this game from the outset.

But the ladies responded with an extraordinary second half where Lehigh shot 57.7% from the field and turned the screws defensively, only allowing 18 points in the second half. The unquestioned hero was senior G Tricia Smith, who came very close to a double-double with 12 points and 9 rebounds. When freshman C Alexa Williams took a nasty elbow to the face in the first half and had to leave, there was no dropoff: freshman F/C Emily Gratch jumped right in with 10 points and 7 rebounds in her place.

Worthy of mention the play of sophomore G Erica Prosser (14 points, 3 steals) and junior G Alex Ross (13 points) as well, but watching the game it was abundantly clear how much of a team effort this game was. It's clear how much the contributions of senior F Haly Crites, senior G Claire Sullivan and senior C Melissa Rich meant as well - double-digit minutes that didn't necessarily show up on the stat sheet, but were crucial to the victory.

*****

And what's the only thing keeping the 25-6 Lady Hawks (Real Time RPI: 69) from crossing off one of the biggest items on their bucket list? Going into the tournament, I thought that if Lehigh made it through the first two rounds, it was going to be No. 2-ranked American for sure.

I would have never believed that it would be "that school in Easton".

But it is. Yes, it is. Yes, 10-21 Lafayette (Real Time RPI: 245). The No. 7 seed. The Leopards, who went 4-12 in Patriot League play and who lost to the Lady Hawks by 21 points in January at Stabler and by 15 points at Kirby.

How did the Lady Leopards do it? Start with sophomore G/F LaKeisha Wright's game-winning jumper against No. 2-seeded American with 19 seconds to play - the margin of victory against the Eagles. Against Navy, Lafayette looked a lot like, well, Lehigh: playing tough defense while shooting 46% themselves in their 62-55 victory. Sophomore F Elizabeth Virgin played lights-out this weekend scoring in double figures both games, while Navy's focus on Wright saw senior G Jessica Spicer sink Navy for 17 points - including 4-for-8 from 3 point land.

This matchup - without a doubt - is the dream matchup for Lehigh and Lafayette fans alike. It's not only a rematch of 1997's championship game (which led to Lehigh's only Patriot League women's basketball championship and NCAA Tournament appearance) -it promises, quite possibly, a sellout crowd in Stabler filled with white-shirted Lafayette fans and brown-shirted Lehigh fans. It will be seen on national television on ESPNU ("El Ocho") at 6 p.m. on Wednesday.

Make no mistake, this Wednesday will be big time.

*****

Cornell was always going to be a very tough out in the EIWA championships, even with Lehigh's 21-1 dual record. While the Lehigh grapplers gave them a good run, they finished EIWA in second place to the Big Red. This year, though, Lehigh wrestlers earned two individual championships - and (at least) seven wrestlers heading to St. Louis to prove their mettle on the national stage.

The big story for Lehigh was junior 184 lb David Craig, who didn't give up a single point in the entire championship and dominated Cornell's Justin Kerber in the championship bout at 184 lbs. Criag is a real threat to be an individial champion in St. Louis, as is junior 141 lb Seth Ciasulli, who upset No. 1-seed Corey Janzen out of Harvard to win the individual title. Freshman heavyweight Zach Rey came close to making it three individual champions, but lost in a decision to Columbia's Ryan Flores.

Junior 133 lb Matt Fisk (3rd), junior 165 lb Mike Galante (3rd), senior 149 lb Trevor Chinn (4th), sophomore Alex Caruso (4th) and freshman 125 lb John McDonald all will be headed to nationals as automatic qualifiers.

And lest I forget, Lehigh head wrestling coach Steve Santoro won an impressive piece of hardware himself: EIWA Coach of the Year. Congratulations to everyone - and we'll see if Lehigh will send a few more to nationals in terms of at-large wrestlers, too.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Round 2: One Down, Army to Go

Game One for the ladies offered no surprises, thankfully. The Lady Hawks trounced the No. 8-seeded Colgate Lady Raiders 78-54 - and set up an intriguing (and dangerous) second round matchup with Army, who knocked out Holy Cross 54-47.

I'm off to see the game, quite literally, in the next few moments. Lehigh will have to do a better job holding G Nalini Hawkins in check than the Crusaders did, who had 24 points yesterday. Of course, if sophomore G Erica Prosser and junior G Alex Ross have days like they did yesterday (15 points and 19 points respectively), I like our chances.

Finally, with Lafayette upsetting No. 2-seeded American yesterday 68-66 - can you say, Lehigh/Lafayette final? You hate to root for "that school in Easton, but...
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