GREENSBORO, N.C. -- The only place that was safe from the Madness Friday night may have been the tiny locker room that the Lehigh Mountain Hawks found themselves in as they awaited the tipoff of their game against Duke. Only minutes before, Norfolk State had become the fifth No. 15 seed ever to beat a No. 2 in tourney history, the first time it had happened since 2001. News of the Spartans' upset was everywhere -- except in Lehigh's locker room, where the players had no idea what had taken place out in Omaha. Head coach Brett Reed knew what had happened but he didn't mention it to his team. Instead, he wrote a message on the whiteboard that speaks just as much to his team as it does to underdogs everywhere and to all those who put their faith each March into the magical powers of the unexpected.
Then he told his team, "We can do this."
To the amazement of everyone but themselves, they did. Using jump shots instead of slingshots, South No. 15 seed Lehigh slew mighty Duke 75-70, outplaying the region's No. 2 seed from start to finish for a seismic upset on a night full of bracket-rattling tremors. A little more than two hours after the Mountain Hawks left that locker room swelling with confidence, they returned to celebrate the biggest win their program had ever experienced and one of the most unforgettable upsets in tourney history.
This time, the players were clued in to the magnitude of their accomplishment. Forward Gabe Knutson had 110 text messages waiting for him. Players called back to their campus to get updates on the celebration ("They're flipping cars over," said one), and reveled in media attention both old --"We just made The New York Times breaking news alerts," said one -- and new --"Kevin Hart and Justin Bieber just mentioned us on Twitter" said another.
Sooner or later, it seems, the Madness always arrives, and when it does it tends to do so, like famous deaths, in multiples. On Friday night, death came early for three of the game's most famous teams: Missouri (knocked out by Norfolk State), Michigan, a four-seed in the Midwest that was dumped by Ohio out in Nashville, and, of course, Duke.
Of that trio, none can match the Blue Devils' cachet, making their demise by far the most stunning. Missouri has never been to a Final Four, and Michigan hasn't even made the Sweet 16 in this century. Duke, meanwhile, is as much a part of March as the tournament itself. The Blue Devils have reached the Sweet 16 in 11 of the past 13 years, advancing to four Final Fours in that time and winning two national titles.
This year, they are finished before the dogwoods in North Carolina have reached full bloom, sent home by a team that had never won a single tournament game. They are kings, brought to their knees by paupers. "The game is a great game," said Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski. "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."
That much was clear in a Duke locker room of stunned silence where the Blue Devils were left literally scratching their heads as to what had gone wrong. "I don't know what happened," said freshman guard Austin Rivers. "I'm in shock. I don't have any answers."
That may be because, on this night at least, Lehigh had all the answers. If it seemed as if the Mountain Hawks knew what Duke was going to run, it's because they did. At several points Duke would flash its signals for an offensive set only to have Reed and his assistants spring to their feet, flashing the same signals and calling out the plays to their defense.
Asked later if they knew what was coming, Reed grinned and said, "We pride ourselves on being one of the nation's most prepared teams, and this was one of the longest preps we've ever had."
Indeed, the nine-day layoff since they had won their conference tournament afforded the Mountain Hawks plenty of time to rest, and the five days of advance time before Friday's game gave them ample opportunity to game plan for the Blue Devils. Reed even got the input of his predecessor at Lehigh, Billy Taylor, to help script a way to counter Duke's advantages in athleticism and raw talent. The most important part of the scheme Reed came up with, said several Lehigh players, was to limit Duke's opportunities from the 3-point line. "It's weird, that's all everyone was saying on the bench, 'Defend the three,'" said backup guard B.J. Bailey.
All week in practice, Lehigh had worked on closeouts, trying to force Duke's quartet of guards -- Rivers, Seth Curry, Andre Dawkins and Tyler Thornton -- to put the ball on the floor and make them score inside the arc. "I don't know if we've played any three shooters all year as good as Rivers, Curry and Dawkins, so we wanted to make Thornton shoot."
The bigs, meanwhile, were instructed to disrupt Duke's normally effective ball screens by staying with the ballhandler after the screen for longer than usual before rolling back down to guard the post. "We didn't want them going downhill," said forward John Adams of Duke's guards.
The plan worked to perfection, as Duke hit just 6-of-26 from three, including a combined 4-for-19 for their trio of snipers. In one second-half stretch, the Blue Devils went more than 12 minutes between made threes. "Once they got down they started taking bad shots," said Lehigh's Gabe Knutson. "They jacked some shots I thought were crazy."
Few of Lehigh's shots fit that description, mostly because they were frequently being taken by C.J. McCollum, the two-time Patriot League Player of the Year and in Coach K's words, "one of the better players we've played against."
McCollum finished with 30 points, while chipping in six rebounds and six assists in 39 minutes of action. He twice made shots in the second half to either tie the game or put Lehigh ahead, and his relentless attacking of the rim got Duke in foul trouble."I felt like I could beat the big man one on one," he said.
While the victory was nice, what had McCollum really excited was the 1,500 Twitter followers he picked up. "That's huge for me," he said with a laugh.
He certainly earned it. Perhaps no player on Friday night did as much to turn doubters into believers as McCollum but he and his teammates were far from the only ones on a fabulous Friday. He was asked about the significance to two 15-seeds triumphing on the same day. "I know we made a little bit of history." He paused, and smiled. "Well," he said, "I guess it was a lot of history."