McCollum made the difference in Duke loss

Staff writerMarch 17, 2012 

— No.15 seed Lehigh blasted Duke out of the NCAA tournament Friday night, handing the second-seeded Blue Devils one of their worst and most surprising losses in school history, 75-70.

The massive upset was no fluke. The game started according to form, with Duke’s Mason Plumlee throwing down a tomahawk dunk less than a minute into the game over his smaller opponents.

But after that, nothing came easy for Duke. It turned out Lehigh guard C.J. McCollum was by far the quickest and best player on the court, and if he had made all the free throws and four-footers that he missed he would have scored 50 points instead of his actual 30.

Lehigh led for most of the game and finally finished off Duke at the foul line and with a couple of late breakaway dunks. A number of North Carolina fans happily waved brown “Go Lehigh” signs throughout the game. The Tar Heels easily beat Vermont earlier, and many of their fans took some nasty pleasure in the diminishing fortunes of their chief rival.

It isn’t unprecedented that a No. 15 seed beat a No. 2 seed. It happened just a few hours before, in fact, when Norfolk State upset Missouri. But for Duke to lose in Greensboro against the champions of the Patriot League? Seriously?

Lehigh counts automobile icon Lee Iacocca among its prominent alums, as well as the engineers who are credited with the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge. The Mountain Hawks’ uniform is a deep brown and are reminiscent of a UPS truck.

Today Duke has to be wondering what truck just ran over the school’s proud basketball program, which only a couple of weeks ago had a good shot at the ACC regular-season championship. The Blue Devils lost to North Carolina, lost the ACC tournament to Florida State and then lost their first game in the NCAA tournament.

Once again, Duke was undone by not being able to hit the three-point shots it relies upon so heavily, making only six of 26 threes against Lehigh. Duke was 22-for-93 (23.6percent) over the final four games of its season, three of which it lost. The Blue Devils (27-7) once again played without Ryan Kelly (sprained foot), their third-leading scorer.

McCollum, though, was the difference in the game. Duke turned out to have no one who could guard the Patriot League’s player of the year, a 6-3 guard who played like he was taller and could get his shot off anytime he wanted. He got one Duke player after another into foul trouble and also provided the necessary chutzpah every time Lehigh looked in danger of falling out of contention.

Lehigh’s players came over to their small but vocal section of fans after the game, waving and clapping. Lehigh’s coach Brett Reed walked over, too, and blew a couple of kisses to the crowd. He said before the game that his team was on a mission to “Beat Duke.” Against all odds, it succeeded.

It was the sort of scene the tournament is famous for – a group of unknowns taking down a big name school. A No.15 seed beating a No.2 (for the second time in one day!)

All over America, everyone had to be loving it.

Unless you are a Duke fan. Then it really hurt.

Scott Fowler: 704-358-5140; sfowler@charlotteobserver.com

704-358-5140; sfowler@charlotteobserver.com

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