Saturday, March 21, 2009

No. 15 Lehigh vs. No. 2 Auburn, 12:00PM, ESPN2

The Lady Hawks are going to the RAC to try to shock the world, and I'll be there reporting and commenting about it, live, at courtside.

Here's the keys to the game for Lehigh:

1. It's going to take everybody. The Lady Hawks' depth is what have taken them this far. They'll have to do the same things they've done all year in order to pull off the upset - no intimidation factor allowed. The same jumpshots that put away Lafayette can also put away Auburn.

2. Get Ross involved early. Junior G Alex Ross, when she's on, can shoot the lights out. Getting her in rhythm - preferably, to jump to a quick lead - would be a huge boost.

3. Prosser vs. Bonner. Sophomore G Erica Prosser is known for offense, but it could be her defense - and how she handles one of the best point guards in the nation, senior G DeWanna Bonner - that could be key to a historic upset.

Here we go!

12:17 p.m. I'm here at courtside. Lehigh fans dominate and they are LOUD. Students at both ends under the basket. It should feel like a Lehigh home game (albeit a home game which has five times the number of people).

12:23 p.m. 15:44 to play, Auburn 6, Lehigh 4. A lusty "Auburn Sucks!" comes out of the student section to my right. Cheerleaders come out and (basically) serenade the student section. A loud "Let's go Lehigh!". Yes, I was like that once.

Auburn G DeWanna Bonner sure can shoot the ball. So does G Whitney Boddie. Made nice soft jumpshots early. To Lehigh's credit, they are not intimidated. Junior G Alex Ross faked a 3 and got the easy jump shot from two right in front of me.

12:31 p.m. Auburn 25, Lehigh 7. 11:51 to play. Shots not falling early for Lehigh. Not a good start. Senior G Tricia Smith got a 3 ball, but Auburn's athleticism is painfully evident. They're getting a lot of blocked shots. Next to me, someone mentions that Boddie could be the best point guard in the country with 8 apg. Bonner is killing Lehigh with 10 points underneath already.

Bonner goes to the line, the Lehigh fans, well, heckle her. I'll leave it at that. Auburn's band is one awesome band. For the (male and female) cheerleaders, it must be weird to chant "Let's go Auburn" to a crowd loaded with scarlet and brown.

It's already on the verge of getting out of hand. Head coach Sue Troyan will have to get her troops settled down to have a chance. I don't think the die is cast yet.

12:41 p.m. Auburn 31, Lehigh 14. 7:58 1st half. Lehigh settled down and made a run, but Auburn matched them shot for shot. A charge was overturned and a personal foul called on G Erica Prosser, a questionable call (well, yes I'm a homer).

The other way, an Auburn player kicks the ball on a loose ball. "You can't do that!" rings out from the student section. Give the students credit, they have not lost any energy. It is really a home atmosphere right now. Also, if Lehigh makes a run, I could absolutely see the scarlet fans join in on the fun. The small Auburn crew is no match, though you hear small whoops during every Bonner jumpshot.

That's what makes 1st round basketball so fun. Old and new allegiances.

12:51 p.m. Auburn 36, Lehigh 20, Up and down, Lehigh called for traveling. Students swear their disapproval. EVERY foul on Lehigh is "contested" by the fans. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Ross looks a bit out of sorts. She has not gotten a chance to heat up, leading one to believe that Auburn really did their homework. Smith, on the ground, went right after the loose ball, but lost it out of bounds. Lehigh is really clawing out there, but Auburn is using their athleticism well and getting position under the basket effectively.

Troyan is going to the bench to get some production. F Courtney Molinaro got a nice running hook shot to cut it to 16.

1:01 p.m. Auburn 45, Lehigh 30, halftime. Rutgers bumps me from courtside, making me really regret I didn't put a huge neon bumper sticker on my laptop with "Lehigh Football Nation". I had to climb through the crowd, laptop and all, to get my freakin' seat. On the plus side, it's a better view of the action. Really.

My "spot" courtside, which was reserved for a "scout" that didn't exist, is now vacant. Thought I'd mention that. I wonder if I should go ask Rebecca Lobo (doing the game for ESPN2) if there's some free room next to her.

Lehigh ended on a 4-0 run to close the gap by halftime, with a 3 by junior G Alex Ross and a free throw by freshman C Alexa Williams. Lehigh is settling down. As a Lehigh fan, I'm hoping Troyan has a foolproof gameplan coming out of the locker room for the second half.

Auburn looks as advertised - one of the best teams in the country, and a real threat to make the Final Four. Lehigh has done their best to slow down Bonner, but it's almost a lost cause. She has an easy jumpshot and somehow manages to get lost when Lehigh focuses on the 3-point shot. At halftime, she has 17 points and it's easy to picture her getting 34. Nothing against Lehigh, but she is one really good player.

Halftime is the classy Auburn band, playing that old standard "Rosanna" by Toto. (Didn't I hear that played in high school?) In contrast, the Lehigh cheer squad comes out to a hip-hop medley tailed with Busta Rhymes. Leave it to Auburn to make Lehigh seem "urban". (Can I say that?)

Auburn's band, with no evident sense of irony, now belts out a Beach Boys medley. Can "Be True to your School" be far off? Meanwhile, I sense the Lehigh cheerleaders are somewhere finishing off their moves to a tune ripped off a P-Funk album.

1:31 p.m. Auburn 54, Lehigh 34, 15:56 to play. Someone is now sitting in my scouting seat, making me feel a little less bad.

Bonner is one great player, connecting on a running jumper with a soft touch. Lehigh doesn't get many second chance points since Bonner is there to pick up the missed shots. There, she got another rebound. What's that, her 10th?

Auburn F Trevesha Jackson misses a free throw, and the student section takes full credit.

Lehigh is playing tough, and not giving up, fighting to get back in this. This is way different from 1997, when I was wondering if UConn would win by more than 100 points against Lehigh at this juncture. If they're going to shock the world, though, they'll need to shut down Auburn's offense better - and stick the free throws.

"Clutch" the Mountain Hawk gets the Lehigh section riled up along with the cheerleaders. He tries to get the Scarlet faithful to join in... but no dice. Tough New Jersey crowd.

(I'm sticking to the "5 live blog postings per half" NCAA restriction. So if you don't see any blogging for a while, now you know. I need to make these count.)

1:44 p.m. Auburn 69, Lehigh 49, 7:38 to play. A call goes against Lehigh? The refs hear it from the Lehigh faithful. Freshman F Emily Gratch tries to steal the ball, but it goes out of bounds. No quit from the Lady Hawks!

So quick when you make a mistake. Auburn grabs the rebound and goes down the length of the court to get an easy lay-up. C Keke Carrier comes off the bench (all 6'7 of her) and gets some easy buckets. But Prosser shows NO QUIT, stealing the ball, going up against Carrier and drawing the foul. No fear from Prosser!

Prosser puts down the free throws, and then calmly makes a 3 on the other end. Carrier throws the ball out of bounds, and Lehigh gets the ball back. You sense some hope. Actually, incredibly, hope has never left the building. Meanwhile Auburn head coach Nell Fortner quitely puts Bonner and Hilliard back in. They want to crush Cinderella before she gets to the dance.

The Prosser show continues, drawing another foul. Prosser misses one and makes one. A Hilliard 2 and - guess who - Prosser gets the bucket. Lehigh tries to go uptempo, but Auburn has an answer with G Ally Smalley's 3 pointer that hit every part of the rim.

My brain tells me this is basically over. Lehigh is not going to be National Champions (as I picked in one of my ESPN Women's Tourney Challenge brackets). But I really like Lehigh's fight here, and Prosser is one scrappy player. There is no quit in her.

2:01 p.m. Auburn 77, Lehigh 49, 3:50 to play. Auburn's band plays that old Gary Glitter standard "Rock and Roll part two", and Lehigh's students add a "Go Lehigh" to the end of it. The band is simply outnumbered. Just wait until Monday.

Auburn G Sherell Hobbs gets an inadvertent elbow from senior F Haly Crites. Immediately Crites is at her side checking on here. Crites rightfully got the foul, her third. Hobbs immediately misses the free throw. In all honesty, Auburn seems to be genuinely thrown by Lehigh's fan support.

Lehigh just is not getting second shot opportunities under the basket. The amount of offensive rebounds they have I must be able to count on one hand.

A whoop comes up from the crowd. No, not trying to distract C KeKe Carrier's foul shot - the Rutgers Lady Knights have just entered the building. So much for that "crowd going for the underdog" thing. They're here for one reason, and one reason only: to watch Rutgers.

Well, except for that kid in Scarlet with the "Go Lehigh" placard. Bless the younger generation.

In unrelated news, my NCAA men's tournament bracket is looking about as healthy as Lehigh's chances at the national championship. That's what I get for taking UCLA to make the Final Four.

2:05 p.m. Auburn 81, Lehigh 49, 1:32 to play. My women's national championship bracket with Lehigh as national champion is wrecked. (Fortunately, I have nine more, most of which have UConn winning it all.) But Lehigh has competed, and so have the fans.

Auburn is so fast in transition. There's another basket.

Auburn 85, Lehigh 49, final. That wraps it up for me. Lehigh's team gets a standing ovation as it leaves the court, and a huge whoop from the Brown & White near courtside.

Lehigh had no answer underneath for Bonner, who had what seemed like 59 points and 39 rebounds underneath. She's a great player - and Auburn showed why they're such a highly-regarded team. They'll be a tough team to dislodge in the tournament, and I'm not sure VCU or Rutgers will be able to do it on Monday.

It was a great following here with a vocal crowd in favor of Lehigh. (Too bad the Scarlet folks didn't play along.)

Thanks for following!

Friday, March 20, 2009

Lehigh Women's Basketball Ready to Shock the World?

Being a part of the NCAA tournament isn't just a fun trip to New York City and a "thank you for showing up, nice to be here" for the Lehigh women's basketball team.

But it is a whirlwind of national media attention for the Lady Hawks - and for reasons off the court as well as on.

Earlier in the week, Lehigh was recognized as one of 14 teams in the 64-team women's field that have a perfect 100% graduation rate. In the media day, head coach Sue Troyan expanded on that:

“From my perspective, it’s why I do what I do. Being at Lehigh, the type of kids that we get there are truly exceptional in terms of having to balance the things in their lives and truly representing what it means to be a student athlete. This group epitomizes being able to excel academically and athletically. Their team GPA was 3.32, they’ve been ranked in the top 25 in team GPA in six of the last seven years. Our team GPA has been between a 3.25 and a 3.45 every semester, so it’s not a blip on the map; it’s not a one time thing. It’s year in and year out. These kids are kids who excel academically at the same time we have exceptional kids, exceptional students and kids who value the experience."

There was one other trip to the NCAA's for the Lehigh Lady Hawks - in 1997, where Lehigh as a 16 seed was mauled by UConn 130-35 - and that wasn't even a year where they won the national championship. (Lehigh's game notes go into those - including a copy of the stat sheet of the game.)

I got an email from a friend of mine this week, who recalled our trip to Gampel Pavillion for that first-round game. We drove across the state to witness what we knew would be a certain loss. But Lehigh did hold a lead during that game, actually - a Kari Herzog 3-pointer to make the score 5-4. Briefly.

Knowing that the chance of Lehigh having the lead again was remote, I just let out a huge whoop that got the Lehigh section (in the upper deck of the 10,000 strong arena) riled up for about a minute - one of my best basketball memories as a fan.

Howard and I had some great memories from that game - hypothesizing that if Lehigh just went on a 30 point run, they would be "right back in this thing". Hearing a fellow Lehigh fan watch UConn miss a free-throw, and then hearing him scream: "O-ver-ra-ted!"

That will most decidedly not be the case tomorrow at noon. It was a different world then - Lehigh didn't have scholarships to give for women's basketball, while UConn was, well, UConn.
These Lady Hawks are different, and head coach Sue Troyan agrees. "Going back six or seven years ago, the athleticism in the Patriot League, it’s been a difference of night and day. Competitively we are a much stronger program," she said.

Graham Hays of ESPN and Andre Williams of the Morning Call had a different tack: they talked about Lehigh head coach Sue Troyan's interesting family life as a D-I basketball coach with three young kids, and having not only a two-income family, but a successful two-coaching family (husband Fran is Lehigh's softball coach, and a huge success in his own right).

There's more stories out there. The three Lehigh players (senior F Haly Crites, junior G Kristen Dalton, and freshman G Kayla Blake) who are from New Jersey and will be playing not far from home. The "Dare to Be Great" T-shirts brought out for practice this week - the preseason message for the Lady Hawks. The "Bucket List". David vs. Goliath. Shocking the world.

But "We Are Family", four Lady Hawks on the Dean's list, or sophomore G Erica Prosser and senior G Claire Sullivan saving the world after graduation (according to this great ESPN article by Graham Hays), won't make the task on Saturday any easier. It's going to be a huge challenge.

American's Slipper Just Didn't Quite Fit

(Photo Courtesy AP/Baltimore Sun)

I mean, really, did you FEEL it yesterday?

The Patriot League champion, up by ten at halftime against one of the big boys, Villanova. The team that almost made the Final Four last year. The school of "Easy Ed" Pinckney. Howard Porter. Rollie Massimino and the "Four Corners" offense. The 1985 national champions.

Up by TEN points. Outplaying Villanova. In THEIR house.

The Cinderella story was there. Right there, dammit! 'Nova started the game in cruise control, and G Garrison Carr, G Derrick Mercer and F Brian Gilmore happily took advantage. Carr got hot, knocking down six 3-pointers. Mercer, in a move that typefied the first half, picked the pocket of Villanova G Dwayne Anderson and converted an easy layup against a sluggish Wildcat team. And Gilmore was everywhere, elbowing Wildcat F Dante Cunningham, hitting 3-point jumpshots and becoming that all-important third gear.

As broadcast veteran Dick Enberg said on his broadcast, Villanova was content to let a jumpshooting team get into a jumpshooting contest with them. And they were losing. Big.

To Villanova head coach Jay Wright's immense credit, he knocked some heads at halftime and shook off Villanova's rust. He made some key adjustments that led to Villanova's eventual win. And American, trying to do their best impression of the Bucknell team that beat Arkansas and Kansas, simply ran out of pixie dust.

Changing to the 1-2-1-1 and putting a tall defender on Carr was a masterstroke. Wright didn't let Carr get the easy hoops in the second half, and he went to their strength and American's weakness - the inside game - to slowly, but surely, reduce the deficit.

But once Carr got his fourth foul and American had to rely on the gassed Gilmore and Mercer to finish them off, the Eagles found no answer to replace Carr's production. Sure, Gilmore and Mercer did try. But the 3's that served them well in the first half were more labored, falling more and more short. The defensive poinding by Villanova was clearly wearing them down.

Down by 5, Carr came back into the game. But Villanova by then was rolling, the magic for American gone. Carr's shooting touch - the devastating shooting streaks I'd seen him engage in all year - was there, but he wasn't going to get screens or open looks from 3-point land.

On a day and evening when David was getting creamed against the national title contenders, and upsets were few and far between - can you really say Western Kentucky's win over Illinois was really a shock? - American's story really stood out on the first day, even in defeat 80-67. Here were two 5'8 guards - 5'8 with lifts! - taking it to a member of NCAA royalty.

The NCAA tournament is fantastic for Patriot League schools like American. It gives them a national stage - a primetime slot where everyone can see what they do. Undoubtedly the American University president and Patriot League office were thrilled by what happened - front-page news, a captive audience who now know the university - and maybe a Bracket Buster game or two next year. For them, it's a slam dunk.

But for me, the heroic performance was much more bittersweet. Because they HAD them right where they wanted them. The slipper fit. It fit, dammit!

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Lehigh Wrestlers And American's Upset Dreams

There's so much going NCAA championship action on right now that it's almost impossible to cover it all right now. But sure as heck I'm going to try.

The NCAA Championships in St. Louis, MO started this morning, with the seven Mountain Hawk qualifiers all wrestling in the first session of competition. And already it's looking very, very promising for Lehigh as unseeded junior 141 lb Seth Ciasulli had a surprise fall against No. 11-seeded Cody Cleveland out of UT-Chattanooga in the morning session and then disposed of Anthony D'Alie out of Eastern Michigan. Junior 184 lb David Craig, seeded No. 8, also took care of business against Virginia's Rocco Caponi.

No. 12 seeded senior 149 lb Trevor Chinn advanced after a forfeit by Virginia Tech's Peter Yates, while three qualifiers will try to earn all-American status through the losers' bracket: sophomore 174 lb Alex Caruso, junior 133 lb Matt Fisk, and junior 165 lb Matt Galante. Freshman heavyweight Zach Rey wrestles later this afternoon.

I'll post a quick update either late tonight or early tomorrow morning with the latest. After having no wrestling all-Americans last year, there is a real shot this year for all-Americans and a wrestler or two may very well make a run at the medals.

You can get a link to the results as they happen here. Filter "Lehigh" as the school and you'll see the results as they roll in.

******

The Patriot League will be playing in prime time tonight on CBS, thanks to their first-round matchup against Villanova (7:20 p.m.). But nobody around the country is giving them much of a shot versus the Wildcats.

Predictably, there's plenty of bulletin-board material out there: like how nobody cares about our graduation rates, and that Patriot League teams are "desperate and untalented". But I always submit a pool or two with the Patriot League team advancing, and the Eagles actually, if they play their best, match up well with their ferocious defense against the Wildcats' unbalanced scoring from F Dante Cunningham and G Scottie Reynolds. G Garrison Carr and G Derrick Mercer, with F Brian Gilmore doing his best Kurt Rambis impression underneath could give Villanova issues.

I'll be there tonight, seeing if the Eagles can pull off another Patriot League upset. Hey, American, win one for the "desperate and untalented", huh?

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Spring Football Practice Takes Center Stage (Over Lax, Wrestling, Women's B-Ball)

With a nearby first-round matchup in the NCAA women's basketball tournament to prepare for, a trip to St. Louis to plan for the seven qualified wrestlers for the national NCAA championships... ya think the Lehigh Athletic department is a little bit busy this week? (I also did notice Lehigh's amazing eight-goal comeback victory against Army in men's lacrosse.)

Hard as it is to believe, there's more big news from Lehigh athletics this week, too: they announced that spring football practice gets underway tomorrow, starting at 4:30 p.m. Head coach Andy Coen, rejoined by new special teams/running backs coach R.J. Ryan (pictured) who was recently hired to take the place of Adam Scheier (Bowling Green), is eager to get back on the gridiron to see the players' development in the offseason:

“This is a fun time of year for us. We aren’t going to be worried about winning or losing games, but rather, focusing on trying to improve every single time we’re out there. We have a lot of talented, young guys in the program and it’s exciting to the coaching staff to see how they have developed throughout the winter months, particularly the rising sophomore class.”

While football games are won in the fall, championships are won in the spring. It's the stuff that doesn't always get written about - conditioning, gameplans, position battles, and the like - that gets worked on in the spring and gives fans a tantalizing look at what may be in store for the upcoming season.

Practices generally are closed at Lehigh, but the Brown & White Spring game (this year, taking place on April 18th) is free and open to the public at Murray Goodman stadium.

What sort of storylines are at play this spring for the football team?

  1. Who Will Catch Clark's Passes? Rising junior QB J.B. Clark is the unquestioned leader of the offense, but his top receiving targets, WR Sekou Yansane and WR Mike "Cris Carter" Fitzgerald graduating, who will emerge as his No. 1 target coming out of spring practice? Eight WRs will be competing for precious spots, including rising junior WR Craig Zurn and another intriguing name: rising sophomore WR Travis Artim, who showed promise on the football field in 2007 (but did not participate in football in 2008). There is clearly no frontrunner here, though, in this battle - this depth cart seems destined to change all spring.
  2. Who Fills McGowan's and Watson's shoes? RB Matt McGowan, Lehigh's leading rusher, and staring FB Adam Watson leave South Mountain this year, and an opportunity exists for one of the running backs in camp this spring to really stand out. The starting FB position, rising senior FB Anthony Fossati (and one of the strongest players on the team), seems a mortal lock. But is rising junior RB Jaren Walker fully recovered from his season-ending injury from 2008? And can rising sophomore RB Matt Fitz, or rising junior RB Jay Campbell establish themselves as potential go-to backs this spring?
  3. The Kicking Game. With P/K Jason Leo graduating, coach Coen will undoubtedly be looking at rising junior K Tom Randazza and rising sophomore P/K Alex Smith to see how they've worked in the offseason and how they will perform this spring. Will one or both emerge and make the kicking "battle" a moot point in August?
  4. The Big Uglies. Lehigh's win over "that school in Easton" showed that coach Coen's emphasis on both the "O" and "D" lines has paid off, but the departure of big all-Patriot League guys like DL Brian Jackson and OL Kevin Bayani need replacing for 2009. On offense, you can chalk in rising junior OL Will Rackley and rising junior C Keith Schauder in the starting lineup, but there are no fewer than nine players - including rising senior OL Frank Giacalone and rising senior OL Ben Harden - that will be competing for starting spots. On the defensive side rising senior DT (and LFN fave) B.J. Benning seems like a mortal lock for a starting role, while a slew of other linemen are looking to start next to him, including rising senior DT Darrell Ray and rising junior DT Phil Winett.
  5. Secondary depth. You can chalk up two of the starting positions in the secondary: rising junior CB Jarard Cribbs - and, of course, rising junior CB John "Fear Itself" Kennedy, whose dramatic 90 yard interception sealed the win against "that school in Easton". The replacements for SS Quadir Carter and FS Brendan VanAckeren are harder to gauge, though the frontrunner for one of those positions has to be rising senior SS Jesse Sanchez. The final safety spot (and the remaining secondary slots) are up for grabs for no fewer than six players, including rising senior S Femi Ajewole and rising junior DB Casey Eldemire.
*****

Looking towards New Jersey, it's abundatly clear that Lehigh can't afford to sit back and relax. Lafayette filled their two coaching vacancies as admirably as Lehigh did with R.J. Ryan, nabbing FBS Toledo offensive line coach (and former Penn State player) Stan Clayton to fill Bob Heffner's (Northwestern) big shoes on the "O" line, and grabbing at defensive backs Doug McFadden (South Dakota State) and at wide receivers former Leopard player Marcel Quarterman.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Lehigh to play Auburn at the RAC

While a 15 seed may seem a bit disappointing, the fact that Lehigh women's basketball fans will be able to make a quick jaunt down 78 to 287 to Piscataway, New Jersey to see their Lady Hawks play in the first round certainly has to be a comfort.

Lehigh will be taking on the No. 2-seeded Auburn Lady Tigers, and the other game at the RAC will pit No. 7 Rutgers against No. 10 Virginia Commonwealth. Lehigh's game will take place at noon - it will probably be the first game of the NCAA women's tourney to start or finish - and the second game will be immediately following.

Tickets should be available through the Lehigh ticket office, and Rutgers' ticket office. Adult tickets for all three games are $40, while a "family pack" for Saturday is available for $60, including 4 tickets, 4 hot dogs, and 4 sodas.

Auburn, ranked No. 8 in the AP poll, is a daunting challenge for the Lady Hawks, with a team that has four seniors and balanced production across the board - they are a legitimate Final Four contender. The silver lining is that Auburn hasn't won an NCAA tournament game in at least the last three years.

[UPDATE: Lehighsports.com has more information on the matchup, including a video of the "selection party" at Rathbone Dining Hall. Notably, it's the first time that Lehigh and Auburn women's basketball have ever faced each other on the hardwood. Head coach Sue Troyan had this to say: “We made a point of telling the players that we’re not happy just to be here,” Troyan said. “We’re going to practice hard and coach hard to try to win.”]

****

On the men's side, American will be lining up against Villanova in the Wachovia center. If this game were being played in Boise, Idaho, I'd give the Eagles a decent chance to pull an upset if they play their best game; but with the Wildcats in effect playing a home game, it looks like a tall order for American to shock the NCAA world a la Bucknell.

On the plus side, American will be playing at 7:20 p.m. on Thursday - meaning if you're in the Philadelphia, Bethlehem or DC area, you'll be seeing American on the tube.

[UPDATE: American has another reason to be excited: the American women's basketball team, the team I was most worried about in the Patriot League tournament, was selected for the Women's NIT, where they will face off at James Madison in a first round matchup Friday night.]
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