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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.


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