The clock read 0:01.
One group of fans was cheering wildly, happier than they ever expected to be. The other sat in stunned silence, unable to comprehend what had just taken place.
Those of us sitting court-side at press row were stunned as well, having witnessed the greatest upset in the history of the NCAA tournament.
Duke’s Quinn Cook made a 3-pointer with three seconds left on the clock, and Lehigh coach Brett Reed called a timeout one second before time expired. He had a message for his team. He told his players to act like they had been there before.
But they hadn’t been there before. These players certainly had not experienced a win in the NCAA tournament before. The school itself was 0-4 in NCAA tournament games up to that point. And though five No. 15 seeds had defeated No. 2 seeds before, including one earlier that same day, Lehigh’s win Friday over Duke was is in a class of its own.
It wasn’t just any No. 2 seed to fall. It was Duke, one
of the greatest basketball programs in the history of the NCAA. It was Duke, which ranks fourth in NCAA tournament victories, third in final four appearances, second in championship game appearances and fifth in titles.
More than that, Lehigh’s victory came over Mike Krzyzweski, the all-time winningest coach in the history of Division 1 college basketball, both in the tournament and overall. A man who has more highs in coaching than any other said it best: “I’ve been in it for 37 years and it takes you to incredible highs and it also takes you to incredible lows. And tonight’s one of those lows.”
But Lehigh didn’t cause a scene. As their star C.J. McCollum made the first of his free throws with one second remaining to give the Mountain Hawks a four-point lead, his teammates were satisfied with quick chest bumps. They knew they had just pulled off the greatest upset in the history of the NCAA tournament, but to them it wasn’t a surprise.
It was evident in the way McCollum and co. played that they knew they could beat Duke. They had a swagger about them and they believed they were going to win. Not that they could win. They believed that they were going to win.
Maybe Norfolk State’s victory earlier over Missouri added to Lehigh’s confidence, but I don’t think so. Lehigh played with a confidence that doesn’t come and go. They played with a confidence that is ingrained deeply inside them.
McCollum knew he was the best guard on the court that night. Even while playing against Seth Curry and Austin Rivers, the Patriot League Player of the Year knew he could play with, and even beat, everyone else on the court.
But McCollum wasn’t alone. The whole Lehigh squad played with that same confidence that allowed them to beat Duke. They weren’t hanging around all game — it was Duke that had to give everything it had to keep it close.
As I sat watching the game, my heart raced. I knew I was witnessing history.
At one point, Lehigh guard Mackey McKnight dribbled the ball over half-court and paused at the 3-point line. Between him and the hoop was Duke’s lone senior, six-foot-10 forward Miles Plumlee. As Plumlee dug in, waiting for McKnight to drive to the basket, McKnight stared him down for a few seconds before turning around resetting the offense. As he turned around, he smiled to himself, as if to say, “Look at you. Look how hard you’re having to work just to stop me. We’ve got this.” That’s when I knew they really did have it.
Lehigh brought a confidence onto the court that few No. 15 seeds have. Despite being one of two No. 15 seeds to win that day, Lehigh was the only one who had aspirations beyond beating Duke. Sure, Norfolk State wasn’t counting themselves out after the first round, but they gave every ounce of effort and emotion they had to beat Missouri. And it showed in the Spartans’ 34-point loss to Florida last night.
Lehigh wasn’t just there to compete with Duke. Lehigh was there not only to win its first round game, but to make a run in the tournament. And even though the Mountain Hawks came up short against Xavier, the played better in two games than anyone thought a No. 15 seed could.
Lehigh should be remembered for what they did against Duke. The Mountain Hawks should not be remembered as just one of six No. 15 seeds to reach the round of 32, because they were so much more. They pulled the greatest upset in the history of the NCAA tournament, a moment of history that should not be forgotten.
Eric’s experience wouldn’t have been possible without the glory that is spring break. But shouldn’t professionals have it too?
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