That's not to say I didn't have confidence in Lehigh's abilities as basketball players. I knew they certainly could win it, and had the ingredients to win it: leadership, in the form of co-captains senior G Marquis Hall and senior F Zahir Carrington. But nagging memories of Lafayette's 90-75 victory in February still lingered: and that maybe, just maybe, they would shoot the lights out again and deny these two Lehigh superstars a shot at a championship and the NCAA tournament.
Thankfully, Carrington simply refused to let that happen.
It was a true team performance to get Lehigh the championship - let's be clear about that. But what folks will remember through the ages was that Zahir simply refused to lose this game. (more)
The night before the game, I had a dream. My dream involved Lafayette playing Lehigh in football and benefiting from a bunch of questionable calls - with Lafayette winning the game.
I took this as a real bad omen. Yes, it was about football, not basketball. And yes, it most likely was due to some extra sleep-synaptic activity mixed with my anticipation for the "Rivalry"-themed matchup in basketball. But no matter. It was Lafayette winning something, and that was bad. Real bad.
My day didn't start much better, either, when computer problems had me working later than I thought. By the time I zipped home, rounded up my family and headed up to Stabler, I was wondering how much of the game I would miss - expecting a madhouse at Stabler, a near sellout.
My wife, to her credit, spent the whole trip to Lehigh telling me just how ridiculous it all was. We would get there in plenty of time (well, just about at tipoff, anyway). The dream was ridiculous - Lehigh was the No. 1 team, after all. My son - as he often does - agreed with Mom.
We got in the building, and what struck me right away was how loud it was in Stabler Arena. Not that I expected this to be any ordinary game, but the game had barely started and the place was more electric than I had ever heard it. The most packed and most loud I had ever heard the STAR was in the 1990s when Lehigh played Lafayette during the regular season in their waning days in the ECC. Right off the bat this was different.
Entering the arena you could see a sea of white in an area which is usually off-limits for Lehigh basketball games - right behind the projection screen that worked remarkably well as a DiamondVison. Lafayette students showed up - a lot of them - and they really, really brought it, to their credit. Complete with pep band. They were loud, psyched, hyper-partisan, obnoxious and brash. I admired them.
Considering Lehigh's fans were on spring break, Lehigh rounded up a good number of students next to the basket, along with a real large number of locals, alumni and Lehigh fans that were - somewhat silently, at first - supporting the home team in Brown. The pep band and student sections were smaller, but no less partisan and no less passionate. It was a nice flashback to the days when I was a student in a packed student section in Stabler, heckling teams like Drexel, Towson and Delaware.
As we entered, Lehigh actually had a six point early lead thanks to Lehigh's flying start. With super freshman G C.J. McCollum converting an early three and assisting on another to senior G Dave Buchburger, Lehigh leaped out to a six point lead and put a heap of early pressure on the Leopards to keep up. And keep up they did, as sophomore G Jim Mower converted two early baskets to cut the deficit to 2.
This scenario would play itself out the entire game in some form - a game of runs, role players, and emotion. The Mountain Hawks would get a key transition basket off a missed Lafayette shot that might cut the lead - say, a layup by freshman F Gabe Knutson - that would make a tantalizingly close 4 point deficit into a 6 point hill to climb. Each time Lehigh would get it to a place when it looked like they would run away with it, someone would miss a 3 pointer and sophomore F Ryan Willen and junior F Jared "Double" Mintz would convert on an awesome backdoor play that would cut the deficit back to six. (Somewhere, Lafayette alum and former Lehigh head basketball coach Pete Carril must have been smiling.)
Both head coaches, Dr. Reed and Lafayette head coach Fran O'Hanlon, used their timeouts judiciously to manage the runs and emotion. After a particularly emotional 5-0 run by Lafayette with a basket by senior G Michael Gruner and a 3 pointer by Mower, Reed called time out and got exactly the play he wanted out of the time out: a 3 pointer by Buchburger to bring the lead back to 4 and stop Lafayette's emotion from takign over.
Both teams left no emotion in the bank. For Lafayette, you could see senior G Jeff Kari, junior G Ben Wheeler and junior F Darion Benbow playing with a quiet confidence that they were going to be able to hit the shots to win the game, playing with great patience. On the other side, it was impossible to miss the emotion from players like junior G Prentice Small and sophomore F John Adams, who knew what they needed to do but sometimes didn't.
In the end, though, it would Hall's and Carrington's day.
Carrington's evening will not soon be forgotten. Always a good player in the Patriot League, he simply refused to let his team lose last night. Start with his four blocks - which undoubtedly made Lafayette more hesitant to go inside and shut down the Leopards' inside game. His stat line read 18 points, 10 rebounds, and 4 dunks, but it doesn't represent the complete presence he was underneath.
And no other play in the entire game could be more representative of Lehigh's win when Hall - doing his best Mark Jackson no-look pass impersonation - would zip the ball to Carrington for a monster dunk that would put Lehigh up by 10 with 2 minutes to play. The place simply erupted - the Lehigh fans who had been so nervous before finally went bananas. Seeing it again on TV gave Carrington his "SportsCenter Moment" - just overpowering with emotion and fired-up intensity.
Junior G Michael Ojo came off the bench to hit some big free-throws down the stretch - after a few more missed shots by Lafayette would seal the deal - and Hall's, Buchburger's, Carrington's and senior G Matt Shamis' dreams of a Patriot League championship and NCAA tournament appearance finally became a reality. I'm not sure they could have dreamed as freshmen how they would do it - with a all-around team effort, at home in front of a split "Rivalry" crowd on ESPN2 in what is arguably the biggest Lehigh win ever in men's basketball, and unarguably at least the second biggest - but that's how it went down.
Hall, Carrington and the Mountain Hawks had the rare opportunity to play at home and cause pin-dropping silence from the half of the arena that was clad in white. It's something they will remember the rest of their lives.
You can bet that the men's basketball team will be making an appearance tomorrow to support the women's basketball team at 6:00 PM Saturday as well. It could cap off a perfect championship basketball weekend for Lehigh.