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McCollum, McKnight, and their Lehigh Mountain Hawks are not to be forgotten
- Updated: March 22, 2012
Upsets are often pulled off during the NCAA Tournament. That is why it’s appropriately called March Madness. In recent years, the improbable has happened. Double-digit seeds have made the Sweet 16, the Elite Eight, even the Final Four. In 2011, VCU stunned Purdue by 18 in the second-round to reach the Sweet 16. In 2008, Stephen Curry’s 10th-seeded Davidson reached the Elite Eight. In 2006, 11th-seed George Mason pulled off the latter achievement, beating Rudy Gay’s top-seeded UConn in overtime to play for a chance at a championship. In both 2010 and 2011, Butler took this one step further and reached the championship game. Lehigh University wasn’t able to reach any of those pedestals, but that doesn’t mean what they did will be forgotten.
Lehigh, coached by a doctor and located in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, was thought to be any ordinary 15th-seed, with a fighting chance and ultimately a fool’s hope. For only the fifth time in tournament history, that was not the case. Second-seeded Duke was playing in nearby Greensboro, North Carolina. The Cameron Crazies, migrating to another arena, were thought to be in full force, loud and intimidating. They weren’t, and their team didn’t strike fear into the hearts of Lehigh, either.
“I think they expected a cakewalk,” said Holden Greiner, a junior forward for the Mountain Hawks. “I mean, you’ve seen the Cameron Crazies on TV. You know what their fans are like. They were loud, but it wasn’t what I expected.”
How the game transpired wasn’t what many expected, either. Only Lehigh knew what they were capable of. They played like they could win and like they knew they would. To the everyday college basketball fan, the team was mysterious. Who did they have? What was their style of play? Where was the university even located? Who were their go-to guys? Millions and millions of people around the world were about to find out.
They were notably introduced to junior guard C.J. McCollum, standing 6’3″ with a smooth crossover and an even smoother shot. He was the fifth-leading scorer in the nation this season and he has over 2,000 points in his career, a rare achievement for a non-senior. He wasn’t highly touted coming out of high school, but, especially after his 30-point, six-rebound, six-assist performance against Duke, many programs surely wish they had given him a look.
Seven years ago, Slam Magazine‘s Roger Bohn did when he was working for Rivals. He was attending a game in which Ohio’s Canton GlenOak High School was playing. Kosta Koufos, who starred at Ohio State and who is now with the Utah Jazz, was playing, and Bohn was there to see him. McCollum was the player who caught his attention, however, then a 5’3″ freshman who effortlessly rained in jumpers. When Koustos left, the team was McCollum’s, and he didn’t disappoint. A growth spurt had him listed at 5’10″ as a junior, and his game grew accordingly.
As a result of his maturation as a player, McCollum rightfully drew most of the attention against Duke. He captured my attention, too, and I became so entranced by how easy his game looked. He wasn’t very quick, but what he had was a deceptive, Brandon Roy type of speed. It appeared he was moving in slow motion, yet he would still manage to blow by defenders, either crossing them up for jumpers or driving effortlessly to the rim for layups. He maneuvered around them as if they were stuck in quicksand.
“I had to develop as a player and the coaches had to develop trust in me that I’d make the right decision, and not try to score every play,” he told Bohn. “I told my teammates ‘Whenever in doubt, just get me the ball and I’ll make a play for us.’” He made many against one of the nation’s top teams. And he will keep making him, whether he is back with Lehigh to add to his legend or in the NBA.
Mackey McKnight, his backcourt mate who looked to be generously listed at 6’0″, also proved captivating, especially in their second-round matchup against Xavier. Lehigh lost, as Musketeers center Kenny Frease had the game of his life to dash any hopes of Cinderella’s slipper fitting the Mountain Hawks, but the sophomore did everything he could to try to make up from an off-night from McCollum. A sophomore with blistering speed, a white headband that looked far too big, and a hypnotic crossover with a flair of pizzazz usually designated to Rucker Park or another concrete jungle.
He lulled opposing guards to sleep, slowly dribbling through his legs before zooming past, leaving them in his wake. He hit three-pointers. He maneuvered in for layups. He played far bigger than someone of his height and stature. And he was cocky. He would smile after a dazzling move, knowing he had just left one or more defenders in his wake. In loss, he scored a season-high 20 points on 7-15 shooting. This defeat was painful, but the Houston, Texas native has lost more than games in his life.
As a child growing up in Houston, McKnight would play basketball with his best friend, Joe McMillan. In their friendly matches, as told by Michael LaRoe of The Express-Times, “McKnight pretended to be Duke because McMillan, originally from North Carolina, was a huge fan of the UNC Tar Heels.” Unfortunately, playing Duke and defeating the team he once personified carried more weight than can be perceived. As LaRoe goes on to document, McMillan was shot and killed on a bus in Inglewood, California in October of 2010.
“We used to imagine he’d hit the big shot to beat Duke in the NCAA tournament,” McKnight told The Express-Times last Wednesday night after Lehigh’s first practice in Greensboro, N.C. “I play for him every single day. I have a tattoo for him. He’s my angel over me every single game and it’s an honor to be here in North Carolina and play against Duke. Hopefully he’s watching me and blesses us on the court.”
He was, and a win fittingly resulted for McKnight’s Mountain Hawks. It is for that win that Lehigh will be forever remembered. The day Mackey McKnight and C.J. McCollum, two energetic and immensely talented guards with bright futures, helped an unknown university in Pennsylvania accomplish what was thought impossible.
Photo Courtesy of Gary Hendricks