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Lehigh 75, Duke 70, Final

I've got a confession to make: March 16th, 2012 did not start out well for me.

It was not a day that felt like history was going to be made, starting with a sleepless night, and another long workday ahead after already logging more than forty hours at the office.

But by the end of the night, all the stress, all the frustration and all the hard work of the last week were gone.

There was nothing else but the extraordinary achievement of this very, very special Lehigh men's basketball team.

The best Lehigh basketball player I've ever seen out-performed one of the best guards in the ACC - and played a huge part in writing the Mountain Hawks into NCAA tournament history.

When I got up, it just seemed like it was going to be just a horrible day.

Stuck with a major project at work and some family commitments that precluded a trip to Greensboro, I couldn't head down to the NCAA Tournament game, though I had multiple opportunities to pick up tickets, rides, or both to see history being made.

I was out-of-sync all day, and nothing seemed to function properly.

After getting up too late, when I hopped in the shower the knob broke, leaving me with a cold shower and no time for anything to eat for breakfast except coffee, which I drank in a Patriot League travel mug as I was caught behind every landscaper in the county and hitting every red light on the way to work.

Work was a grind.  The deadline for our project is coming up, and a critical piece of it is in my hands.  While I did wear my Lehigh shirt to work - and I told anyone in the office who'd listen that the Mountain Hawks had an excellent chance to knock off Duke - I wasn't spending a heck of a lot of time obsessing about brackets.  I was obsessing about getting my stuff done.

All week I had put in long days, but I had promised myself only one thing: that I'd leave work early on Friday in order to watch the game.  But even that promise was broken to myself, as I had to work later than I'd wanted.

I had to get gas, but the lines, of course, at the gas station actually required a wait to get my fill-up.

Furthermore, on the way home my head was still not totally in the game.  It was into the frustrations of the day - the long work week, the busy work week ahead, work, work, work, responsibilites at home, more work, more stuff.

It would only be at around an hour before gametime when the reality would really sink in - that Lehigh was actually playing today in Greensboro, NC for a chance at a national championship.

Against Duke, one of the hallowed programs of the college basketball pantheon.  Coach K.  Christian Laettner.  Shane Battier.  Grant Hill. 

With the Blue Devils, essentially, playing at home, where they were 12-0 in tournament history.

With a lead-in to the game like the one I had today, I really wasn't feeling it.  If the outcome of this one was based on the karma and luck I seemed to be bringing to the table, the best thing I could do is watch Sanford and Son and forget watching hoops this evening.

After all, 15s almost never beat 2's.

Right?

*****

But something was in the air today.

Up until Friday afternoon, there weren't really any upsets to speak of in the NCAA tournament.  11 seeds VCU and North Carolina State winning over higher-seeded teams didn't really seem that remarkable - they actually seemed better than the teams they knocked off in the first place.

That all changed in a huge way when the nation, and I, tuned in to see Norfolk State take Missouri to the woodshed.

On the way home, I was listening to Norfolk State and F Kyle O'Quinn just answering the call, over and over, to Missouri's offensive performance.  Just as the Tigers seemed like they would accelerate past the Spartans, there was O'Quinn, Pendarvis Williams and Chris McEachin keeping up with MIzzou.

I did get home it time to see my wife and son - and get treated by the end of the Norfolk State upset, with incredible drama as O'Quinn, who had the game of his life for the most part, clank two free throws that would have iced the game.

But in echoes of Kansas/Bucknell in 2005, Phil Pressey's desperation shot clanged off the board - and 15 seed Norfolk State had the first big-time scalp of the night.

What are the odds of another 15 upsetting a 2 on the same day?  I thought.  It's never happened before. 

With my karma this day, it would have been fitting if a 15 upset a 2 - and it wasn't Lehigh, my alma mater, the team I had been crowing about all week.

I wouldn't have time to think much about it, though, as Lehigh's tip-off was set to happen almost right after the thrilling Norfolk State finish.

From the get-go, coach K looked concerned about this game.  

And from the start, Duke looked sluggish, and after an early trade of baskets, Lehigh - who still didn't seem in gear, either - surged to a tiny lead and held it through most of the first half.

Part of that was smothering defense by Lehigh, who were forcing bad Blue Devil shots from outside, once even getting a shot clock violation since Rivers couldn't break it.

It was one move, though, by Lehigh's best-ever basketball player, G C.J. McCollum, that really seemed to give the sense to the world that this team was very much capable of the upset.

Controlling the ball, in a move that could have been taken from the schoolyard, McCollum head faked Duke F Josh Hairston left and just blew around him to the right off the dribble, driving for a basket that broke a 21-21 deadlock.

It was almost a flashback to the confidence that Lehigh when C.J. was a freshman, where they faced Kansas in the NCAA Tournament and surged to an early lead.

After McCollum's awesome move, you could feel the pace of the game change - and you could also feel Duke G Austin Rivers stepping up to McCollum's challenge, draining a 3 that would help give Duke a 30-28 lead at halftime.

"Didn't you eat yet?" Kim helpfully told me.  It was true.  I was so glued to the outcome to the game I had forgotten to eat.  And drink.

While I was still shocked and awed by the halftime score, there was no intimidation in the locker room for Lehigh.  If Duke thought that late surge would scare Lehigh back to Bethlehem, they were tragically mistaken.

At halftime, an extremely controlled Lehigh head coach Brett Reed said to CBS' sideline reporter - in the biggest game of his life at any level of basketball, let's remember - said, "I still think we can play better."

*****

At the start of the second half, Duke came out strong again, punctuated by a big 3 by G Tyler Thornton and a Hairston jumpshot, giving the Blue Devils their biggest lead of the game, 37-32.

Dr. Reed then called a time out to calm down his team - a move that seemed brilliant in retrospect, since it allowed Lehigh to climb back in the game and take control of the tempo.

C.J. made six points appear almost out of thin air - with drives to the basket, and rebounds nabbed by F John Adams and F Gabe Knutson, which turned into free throws or jumpshots.

McCollum then pitched a tent in Greensboro coliseum, and made it his personal show.

Down by 1, McCollum made an unbelievable lay-up: lifting the ball up with his right arm, then lowering it out of trouble and the outstretched arms of F Mason Plumlee, and then reaching up and lifting the ball to the hoop with a silky touch to make the shot - all through the air in one motion, as only C.J. seems to be able to do.

C.J. would do it all: hitting timely 3's, driving the lane to make soft jumpshots, drawing fouls and forcing a 4th foul on the dangerous G Seth Curry.

When he didn't connect on jumpshots, he'd make beautiful feeds to Knutson, Hamilton, or Adams for easy points.

As a Lehigh fan, the action was dizzying.  So much was happening each possession - all with the thought in my head, This is Duke!  Duke! - that my mind was racing the last two minutes of the game, which felt like two hours.

I kept waiting for Rivers to get hot and close the gap - but it never happened.

It was McCollum hitting the big 3's - and even when he wasn't, he was finding Knutson deep with huge baskets.

I couldn't keep from getting up and yelling and getting excited as the clock started winding down and Lehigh's inevitable march to the win became more and more inevitable - and wondering if my young son thinks I'm mad. 

Four of the biggest points of the game came late when Duke was pressing, and McCollum somehow found the ball and the wide-open man near the basket without a Blue Devil anywhere near him.

Wow.

Up by six with 14 seconds to play, Knutson went to the foul line, completely unable to control a huge smile - and neither could I.

Amidst the Lehigh band playing "Sliver Goblet" (and Asa Packer's Ghost helpfully tweeting his followers all the lyrics), I found my very, very large smile once again - and even a tear.

Every last bit of the stress from my own life was gone.  Every last drop of it forgotten.  The work I had been so unable to let go all week, perhaps all month, was finally free.

All that was left was the latest 15 seed to knock off a 2 seed, a broken Twitter feed, well-wishes from all corners of the world-wide-interwebs - and the sweetest, sweetest victory of any basketball game I've ever witnessed.

If this is Madness, sign me up.  And I don't want it to stop now.

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