10:42 PM EDT, March 16, 2012
GREENSBORO, N.C. —
Pedigree, venue and seed say this was the greatest upset of the NCAA basketball tournament's modern era. The proverbial eye test tells a radically different tale.
Lehigh defeated Duke 75-70 in the Blue Devils' backyard Friday, and anyone who watched, in person or on television, no matter of loyalties, should concede that justice was done.
On this night of unrivaled bracket carnage, the better team won.
No, Lehigh had never advanced in the NCAA tournament game. Yes, Duke is a four-time national champion.
Sure, the Mountain Hawks hail from the Ivy-like Patriot League, while the Blue Devils compete in the storied ACC.
And finally, yes, this marks only the sixth time a No. 15 seed has beaten a No. 2.
But none of that mattered to these Mountain Hawks (27-7). Their chops were apparent, their bravado clear.
Guard C.J. McCollum, the nation's No. 5 scorer, shredded Duke off the dribble. He scored 30 points and passed for six assists, both game-highs.
Forward Gabe Knutson, meanwhile, contributed 17 points and eight rebounds. He made all five of his shots from the floor and 6-of-7 free throws.
"Right when we won the game and the clock hit zero, I just started crying and just thanking my friends and my brother for watching us and blessing us," Lehigh guard Mackey McKnight said. "I told the team thank you for being another family for me and accepting me into their brotherhood and being my new brothers."
Lehigh forward John Adams climbed into the stands and joined the few hundred Mountain Hawks faithful in celebration, but overall, player reaction was muted.
"Duke is a tremendous team, and we didn't want to rub anything into their faces or anything like that," McCollum said. "We got a lot of respect for them. And at the end of the day, it's just another game for us. But we want to continue to be humble and win like we have been here before."
Forward Jordan Hamilton: "We kind of came into this game expecting to win and that's kind of how we wanted to show it after we did achieve our goal. So I mean, give Duke a lot of credit; they're a great team. But we really believed in ourselves."
Conversely, Duke (27-7) displayed little confidence that it could shake a late-season offensive funk. The Blue Devils shot 41.4 percent, committed 13 turnovers and missed 20-of-26 attempts from beyond the 3-point arc.
Never before had two No. 15 seeds won in the same tournament, let alone on the same day.
But less than an hour after Norfolk State shocked Missouri in Omaha, Neb., Lehigh began its quest to make it a six-pack.
And from the start, the Mountain Hawks showed they belonged. They were quicker, tougher, smarter than the Blue Devils.
A lesser team would have blinked when Duke seized a 37-32 lead early in the second half. Lehigh scored seven consecutive points.
An impostor would have folded when Austin Rivers scored five quick points to give the Blue Devils a 42-39 edge. The Mountain Hawks countered with an 8-0 run.
Lehigh took the lead for good at 50-49 on McKnight's right-wing 3-pointer. As the ball settled into the net and McKnight sprinted back on defense, he barked at Duke's Seth Curry.
In short, the Mountain Hawks were channeling coach Brett Reed. He told his players they could win, and he was right.
"We want to go in with the right mindset and the right mentality," Reed said on the eve of history. "There has been no script written. If it was, then there would be no sense going through these tournaments. Everyone would just pick their favorite seed and continue to advance through their bracket. The joy is anything can happen."
Can and did.
Consider the other No. 2s conquered by 15s: Syracuse 1991, Arizona '93, South Carolina '97, Iowa State 2001, and Missouri '12. None of those programs carried Duke's cache. None was playing so close to home.
In fact, the Blue Devils had never lost an NCAA tournament in this building. They were 12-0 and had started national title runs here in 1992 and 2001.
"They had the best player on the court tonight in McCollum," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "He's been their player of the year, and he's really one of the outstanding players in the country. You could see why tonight.
"But all their kids played well. We just haven't been in sync offensively these last couple weeks, and it showed up again tonight. Although they played really good defense. But our offense, which was a real strength of ours the entire season, the last two weeks has not been very good. And that's my responsibility."
Not in sync is a charitable evaluation of the Devils' offense. They lost three of their final four games and shot 23.7 percent from three in that stretch. Curry and Andre Dawkins were a combined 2-of-12 Friday and not even Mason Plumlee's 9-for-9 shooting, 19 points and 12 rebounds could deny Lehigh.
For the third consecutive game, Duke was without Ryan Kelly (foot), the team's No. 3 scorer and rebounder, and most accurate 3-point shooter.
"The game is a great game," Krzyzewski said. "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 it wasn't just our doing, they played that well. They played that well."
David Teel can be reached at 757-247-4636 or by email at email@example.com. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/sports/teeltime and follow him at twitter.com/DavidTeelatDP