03/20/2012 by anjru0805
I wanted to scream. I wanted to jump. I wanted to hug someone. I wanted to high five someone. I wanted to rip off my shirt, dump a beer on my head and run around. I wanted to cry (kind of). But I couldn’t do any of those things. I couldn’t even stand up. All I could do was laugh.
Five days earlier, on Selection Sunday, Mar. 11, 2012, I found out that my alma mater, Lehigh University, would be playing Duke in the Second Round of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. The next day, I learned when they’d play and where I’d be. Now a graduate student at the University of Illinois, I had my spring break the following week and would be traveling on Friday evening. My flight from Champaign layed over in Chicago’s O’Hare airport for 4 hours, from 6:30 to 10:30. I was relieved; I’d get to watch the game. I was disappointed; I’d get into Philadelphia late and wouldn’t be able to drive north to Lehigh to celebrate with my friends.
What was I thinking? Celebrate?! Lehigh was playing Duke. The New York Yankees of college basketball. The Goliath to our David. It wasn’t going to happen, it couldn’t.
Over the next few days, my attitude about the game flip-flopped faster than a Mackey McKnight crossover. I watched more college basketball this season than I ever had before and learned to understand the game. I watched Big Ten and other primetime games, none of which included Lehigh.
Duke wasn’t invincible. They had lost some games they should have won (vs UNLV) and won some games they should have lost (vs UNC). Austin Rivers and the Plumlee brothers had the talent to put the team on their back if need be and do, quite literally, whatever they wanted.
Could Lehigh win? Theoretically, I thought. They fought hard to win the Patriot League tournament, including a thrilling victory over Bucknell in the championship game (which I listened to online).
It was time to make my bracket. There were picks I struggled with: Vanderbilt or Harvard? Louisville or New Mexico? Missouri or UNC in the championship game? The game I didn’t struggle with was Lehigh-Duke. I don’t think I could have further shown my mouse who was boss. I defiantly clicked ‘Lehigh’ like it was the last thing I’d ever click. If I didn’t pick them to beat Duke in my bracket, if I didn’t believe in them, how could I expect anyone else to?
If there’s one thing that helped suspend any trace of disbelief, it was my friends on Twitter. I read things like “48 hours until we beat Duke.” The cover of the student newspaper, The Brown and White, read “Beat Duke.” The buzz about the game on Lehigh’s campus must have been incomprehensible. The days leading up to the game, I wore 5 different Lehigh t-shirts, saving the basic, block-lettered one for the game on Friday.
“Of course,” I said.
“Of course,” she said.
I was sitting next to a Duke fan on the short plane ride from Champaign to O’Hare. The conversation started differently, she asked if I went to Lehigh or someone gave me the shirt. Yes, I was placed on this earth for the sole purpose of annoying you with my Lehigh shirt, you self-centered Duke fan. I told her I went there, she said she was a life-long Duke fan and had attended as an undergraduate. I’m glad she told me because her yellow shirt (some fan, right?) didn’t tip me off. We lamented about how, of all the seats on the plane, we were next to each other. We chatted for another minute, I cockily apologized in advance for the outcome of the game, and we did our separate things. Watching this lowly Duke fan sleep, I wondered if I had a permanent marker in my backpack or just a pen. Wait, she likes Duke, not Lafayette, I thought and shut my eyes to nap.
When the plane landed and I discovered that No. 2 Missouri had lost to No. 15 Norfolk State, I was slightly discouraged. It couldn’t happen twice in the same day. The Duke fan laughed, thinking “foolish Mizzou, that won’t happen to us” or something along those lines. I gathered my things, wished the Dukie luck and headed for a barstool in the airport.
The first half of the game was a blur. I couldn’t take my eyes off the TV; I think I ate a burger for dinner but I’m not entirely sure.
We were winning. We missed some free throws and make a couple of dumb mistakes but other than that, we were doing the right things. I tried to calm myself down. This is what we did against Kansas two years earlier; we stuck with them but eventually the raw talent they had became too much to handle.
Down two at halftime, it felt like it could have been 10. Austin Rivers and his team showed what they could do, hitting shots and forcing mistakes. The Dukie followed me here. I didn’t want to deal with the potential of hearing her cheer or make snarky comments, so I sought another location.
Another Dukie. Just as I ordered a beer, another female Dukie (still no Duke apparel) asked if I went to Lehigh.
The second half of the game lasted an eternity. Call me a pessimist, but I was just waiting for Duke’s run. This was DUKE. They hadn’t had the greatest regular season, but the were still a No. 2 seed. They had never lost in Greensboro in the tournament. They still had Coach Krzyzewski.
The run never happened. Lehigh remained composed and methodically regained and kept the lead. They broke Duke’s defense, went on fast breaks and seemed in control.
I couldn’t blink. I sat hunched over in my chair, beer and phone in hand. My phone was buzzing like crazy; receiving “Oh my God” texts mostly, my friends from other schools expressing their amazement and support of Lehigh.
It was happening.
CJ McCollum to the line, 0.4 seconds left in the game. Hits the first. Lehigh 74, Duke 70. Hits the second. Lehigh 75, Duke 70. The first time I read the closed captioning all night, “It’s over.” The inbound, the meaningless heave, the buzzer.
I sat there and laughed. My phone rang, I answered and laughed some more. People watched me laugh. I kept laughing. I sat at the table for 20 minutes by myself before I got up, walked 20 yards out of the restaurant then walked back in to pay my bill. I talked to my Dad on the phone about the win, but didn’t have much to say. I wanted to tweet like I had been throughout the game, but couldn’t put my thoughts into words.
I wanted to be at Lehigh. I was going there the next day to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day and kick my spring break off right, but I wanted to be there at that moment. I wanted to partake in the riots—I mean, celebrations with my friends.
The next day at Lehigh, green was donned and beer was dyed, but all anyone could talk about was the game. I greeted several people without a hello but a “we did it,” countered only with a hug and a high five.
On Sunday, the focus shifted from the win over Duke to the idea of advancing even further.
“Can you imagine—Sweet 16” I heard over and over. It wasn’t about Duke or Xavier, it was about doing something no No. 15 seed had ever done.
On Sunday night, I got to watch the game with my friends. Midway through the first half, with Lehigh up 35-20, people were talking about whether the riots would be as great as they were on Friday night. But Xavier stepped on the gas and never looked back, defeating Lehigh 70-58. It was a crushing loss, the luster of the Duke win all but gone.
I read a tweet from CJ McCollum after the game, thanking Lehigh fans and saying, “Lehigh will be back.” McCollum may enter the NBA draft this year, and if he does, his alma mater will have a harder time making the tournament. But sometimes belief is all a team needs.
Suspend disbelief, Coach Reed told his team. Lehigh believed and they won. Lehigh suspended disbelief among their opponents, fans, critics and everyone in between.
Suspend disbelief. 75-70. A 15 over a 2. Lehigh beat Duke. As I write it now, it still doesn’t seem real.