By David Coulson
College Sporting News
PHILADELPHIA, PA. — I live about an hour south of the Lehigh University campus, so it was interesting to hear on Friday that the police of Bethlehem were on high alert for possible rioting this evening.
Even though Lehigh was playing an iconic Duke program on what amounted to a home court as a No. 15 seed in the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament, the local authorities had faith in their Mountain Hawks.
And after Lehigh stunned Duke, 75-70, at the historic Greensboro Coliseum, that faith proved to be well-placed.
Hopefully, those Engineering fans from Bethlehem keep their wits when they celebrate one of the greatest upsets in the history of the NCAA tournament on Friday night.
A day after what former Duke star/turned basketball commentator Jay Bilas called the worst officiated game in tournament history robbed us of a No. 16 versus No. 1 upset, we were rewarded with two No. 15 seeds beating No. 2s in the span of three hours.
Norfolk State got the trend started with an 86-84 stunner against a Missouri team that many “experts” were picking to reach the Final Four.
To put that in perspective, there had only been four instances of a 15th seed beating a No. 2 seed since the tournament expanded in 1985 before Friday.
The last time that much of a long shot had won in the NCAA tourney was when Hampton — like Norfolk State, a team from the MEAC — ousted Iowa State in a 2-15 game in 2001.
Hampton beat Iowa State 58-57 in that 2001 game to join Richmond (73-69 over Syracuse in 1991), Santa Clara (64-61 over Arizona in 1993), and Coppin State (78-65 over South Carolina in 1997) for the NCAA’s biggest upsets.
Norfolk State found the Achilles heal in Missouri’s game — rebounding — and pounded the Tigers into submission in Omaha, NE.
The Spartans also hit 10-of-19 three-point attempts, shot 62.5 percent in the second half and committed just 11 turnovers against the quick Missouri defense.
As senior Kyle O’Quinn made his way to the post-game press conference he yelled out: “We messed up some brackets. We messed up some brackets … We even messed up my bracket.”
O’Quinn — a 6-10 player, who received no other Division I scholarship offers — responded to the pressures of the NCAA environment with the finest game of his career, firing in 26 points and grabbing 14 rebounds.
“You always go into the game with a sense of confidence,” O’Quinn said. “But I never thought it was an upset-alert until that buzzer went off.”
While O’Quinn was at the center of the Spartans’ historic performance, he added to the excitement at the finish when the 70-percent foul shooter missed a pair of free throws that could have clinched the game with 3.8 seconds left.
But Missouri’s Phil Pressley, who already had 20 points and eight assists, misfired off the back rim on a three-point bomb at the buzzer that could have beaten NSU.
Pendarvis Williams and Chris McEachin contributed 20 points apiece to the Spartans’ monumental upset.
Norfolk State (26-9) didn’t look like it lacked for any confidence when it took a 15-7 lead early, or even when Pressley scored five points on a put-back and a trey with 7:15 remaining to give Missouri (30-5) a 73-69 lead.
The Spartans just kept up with their hot shooting, crashed the boards and continued to put pressure on their higher-seeded opponent.
“The MEAC is a very good league,” said Norfolk State coach Anthony Evans, now in his fifth year. “We just doesn’t get the exposure that the high-level schools get.”
O’Quinn finally gave the Spartans the lead at 84-81 when he grabbed an errant shot out of the air for a put-back with 34.9 seconds left and added a free throw after a foul.
Pressley nailed a three from nearly 30 feet out to tie it again on Missouri’s ensuing possession, but Rodney McCauley dropped through a pair of free throws for NSU’s final points.
“Coming into the game, I believed it,” McCauley said. “I believed it from the jump, honest to God’s truth. We’ve got good shooters. We dig deep. We’re not ready to go home yet. We’ve got five seniors. We’re ready to keep playing.”
For their effort, the Spartans get to move into the third round on Sunday against No. 7 seeded Florida (24-10), which crushed Virginia 71-45 on Friday.
While the Norfolk State win was a shocker, what happened in Greensboro, just a short hours drive from the Duke campus sent the upset Ricther Scale to an even higher level.
Outside of North Carolina games in Greensboro, no other team in NCAA play enjoys as big of a home-court advantage as Duke does at the Greensboro Coliseum.
The Blue Devils were 11-0 during NCAA play at this basketball palace before Friday night and had begun two previous national championship runs in this building.
But none of those other opponents had anyone like C.J. McCollum. The senior guard from Lehigh ran circles around the Duke defense and scored 30 points to lead the Lehigh victory. He added seven rebounds and six assists.
“It means a lot as a team, a family and as the Patriot League in general,” McCollum said. “We wanted to come out here and protect this team and this family, get the win and we did that tonight.”
Lehigh (27-7) kept Duke off-balance through the first half, forcing the Blue Devils to rely heavily on three-point shooting.
When Duke’s long-range marksmen hit just one first-half trey, the Blue Devils were unable to shake the Mountain Hawks and went to the locker room with only a 30-28 lead, despite 38 percent shooting from Lehigh.
The Blue Devils finished the night 6-of-26 from three-point range and seemed increasingly frantic as the second half progressed.
Lehigh kept up a fast pace throughout, often pulling the trigger on quick perimeter shots, or allowing McCollum to make frequent drives to the hoop against the obviously slower Blue Devils.
“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.”
The game played out as a contest of offensive spurts well into the second half before Mackey McKnight buried a three-pointer with 8:21 left to give the Mountain Hawks the lead for good.
From there, Lehigh put the game in McCollum’s hands and began to pull away.
“I told my teammates all year whenever in doubt get me the ball and I’ll make a play for us,” McCollum said.
Gabe Knutson continued the great complimentary play he has given the Mountain Hawks inside with 17 points, hitting all five field-goal attempts and nailing 6-of-7 free throws, while also controlling the bigger Duke players inside on defense.
A McCollum trey and a breakaway dunk from John Adams made it 61-54 at the two-minute mark and you could see defeat in the eyes of Duke players and coaches the rest of the way.
Duke got as close as three points a couple of times in the final 30 seconds, but Lehigh always had an answer for these NCAA blue bloods.
The Blue Devils lost its first tournament game for only the second time in the past 16 years.
Duke also dropped its opener against 11th-seeded Virginia Commonwealth in 2007 and nearly fell to upstart Belmont in 2008 — a disturbing trend for the suddenly vulnerable Blue Devils.
”I’ve been in it for 37 years and it takes you to incredible highs,” Krzyzewski said. ”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. And again my hat’s off to them.”
Lehigh will try to improve on its performance when it takes on No. 10-seeded Xavier on Sunday.
Xavier (22-12) came from behind for a controversial 67-63 victory over Notre Dame, which had a pair of potential game-tying free throws negated by a lane violation with four seconds left.
The scary thing is that Lehigh knows it can play much better. As good as McCollum was, he only hit 9-of-24 shots from the field and was a shaky 10-of-16 from the foul line.
Many of the other Mountain Hawk player also struggled from the charity stripe, a place where Lehigh has established itself as one of the top teams in the country.
“We saw on the selection show we had Duke and we thought we could match up very well against them,” Adams said. “We all believed it and we showed it on the floor. Everybody bought into that idea that we could beat them. The rest is history.”
And on this day in the NCAA, history was indeed the subject.