Sometimes along the course of the journey a team chooses you rather than you choosing them. You just get a feeling and you know when it happens. I had visited Lehigh University's Stabler Center in the past; it's a nice little place to see take in a game situated on a very scenic campus. Earlier this year, Lehigh had opened their season in New York City and I had covered the game for this site. They had shown flashes of brilliance but were still working out some of the kinks from the long offseason. Fast foward to March and I am here to witness their final exam if you will.
The conference championships in one-bid leagues are the most special events in our game. When held on campus, the atmosphere is that much more intense. The anticipation builds and affects every aspect of life at these small schools as the university comes together in ways they never have before. I have had the good fortune to have attended several of these events in the past and in that time I have rushed the court, had a player break down and cry in my arms, held a championship trophy, had glitter dumped on my head and had temporary hearing loss the next day. And the best part is...I didn't attend any of these schools. I just opened myself to the raw emotion of the experience and went wherever it took me. It is something so powerful that no other thing in basketball is comparable.
Tickets for these events are always hard to come by. Bucknell had sold out their lot almost immediately. I hadn't planned to attend the event until I noticed a cryptic message on the Lehigh's Athletics website. "A very limited number of seats will be available for the Men's Basketball Championship Game. Email immediately for the purchasing code." A few keystrokes later I had received a return email and I quickly purchased one ticket. I was in. Perhaps I had purchsed the final ticket available to the game because my seat assignment when I arrived was a solo seat, courtside next to Lehigh's bench.
I rented a car and drove out after working all night from New York City. After arriving safely, I made my way to the Sojka Pavilion. It was clear that this facility would be filled beyond capacity tonight. As I sat watching pregame warmups, several Lehigh players gave me a hand slap when they walked by. I don't know why they did it, it was just a beautiful spontaneous thing. Being so close to the action I could see the intensity in the eyes of the Mountain Hawks. There was little being spoken amoung them. Conversely Bucknell had a very loose almost playful demeanor. During player introductions the Bison had a player do a full Breakdance routine in their player huddle bring a chuckle from the crowd and their bench. I thought to myself "they have already lost." Bucknell had gotten past their first two opponents in the Patriot League Conference Tournament relatively easily so maybe there was some sentiment that this game would be similar despite the fact that Lehigh had beaten them once this year.
From the opening tip the Mountain Hawks played with greater intensity and they jumped out to a quick lead, ballooning at some points to as large as eleven points. That opening surge was the difference because after halftime Bucknell would make a late charge and get back into this game. Lehigh held a seven point lead to start the second half. Bucknell began to get the ball deep in the paint to Mike Muscala who was either scoring or being fouled. Muscala single handedly kept his team in the game as Bucknell came all the way back. He had thirteen points and five rebounds after halftime.
After two quick succesive three point shots by Johnson, the Bison pulled to within one point and had the ball with six seconds left in the game. Gabe Knudson made a game saving block and CJ McCollum rebounded the ball getting fouled immediately.
With everything on the line CJ McCollum stepped to the line to shoot two shots in front of the deafeningly loud student section. I can only describe it as being so loud that it was like a high pitched white noise that became an even higher pitched white noise when he shot. In addition to this, the students had filled in the section the area behind the basket and some were actually standing on the rear base of the basket itself causing it to rock back and forth. I was trying to yell down to the Lehigh bench not to shoot the shots yet in vain, but luckily an assistant coach caught it and alerted the referee. As one official attempted to move the crowd back behind the basket, in the chaos a different one had passed the ball to McCollum and he took the shot with almost no hesitation as the rim swung back and forth by as much as an inch. His shot was nothing but net. I'm not sure if this aspect of the game could be detected on the live television feed. Even on the second shot from the foul line the basket was still swaying a little and hit shot again perfectly thru the rim. I cringed as he made these shots but he was too locked in to let anything distract him. Lehigh's Jordan Hamilton made a steal as Bucknell brought the ball up after these foul shots and he in turn was fouled and hit his two shots.
After a last second Bucknell heave, we were running onto the court. Somehow in the chaos my phone flew out of my pocket and and landed at the center of where the players were jumping up and down. I am almost positive there is a video out there somewhere of me going from euphoria to "oh crap!". I couldn't even get to it for a good thirty seconds as it was trampled.
Truth be told, my phone had been working poorly earlier in the day. After examining it as I exited the arena it had miraculously started to work properly and wasn't damaged at all. Is there anything these guys can't do?
LEHIGH 82, at BUCKNELL 77 03/07/2012
LEHIGH 26-7 (11-3) -- C. McCollum 9-17 10-13 29; M. McKnight 4-8 1-4 11; G. Knutson 9-16 4-5 23; B. Bailey 2-3 0-0 6; J. Adams 1-2 1-2 4; J. Hamilton 1-3 2-2 4; J. Maneri 2-4 1-2 5; H. Greiner 0-2 0-0 0; C. Schaefer 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 28-56 19-28 82. BUCKNELL 24-9 (12-2) -- M. Muscala 8-17 14-16 30; B. Cohen 1-3 1-2 3; C. Ayers 3-9 2-2 9; J. Willman 4-9 2-2 10; S. Kaspar 2-5 3-5 8; B. Johnson 3-8 2-2 11; R. Hill 1-2 0-0 2; B. Brackney 1-2 0-0 3; B. Fitzpatrick 0-0 1-2 1. Totals 23-55 25-31 77.
Three-point goals: LEH 7-15 (J. Adams 1-2; J. Hamilton 0-2; B. Bailey 2-2; H. Greiner 0-2; G. Knutson 1-1; C. McCollum 1-2; M. McKnight 2-4), BUCK 6-13 (B. Johnson 3-7; J. Willman 0-1; C. Ayers 1-1; B. Brackney 1-1; R. Hill 0-1; S. Kaspar 1-2); Rebounds: LEH 24 (G. Knutson 7), BUCK 33 (M. Muscula 14); Assists: LEH 12 (C. McCollum 5), BUCK 14 (M. Muscula 4); Total Fouls -- LEH 24, BUCK 21; Fouled Out: LEH-J. Adams; BUCK-M. Muscula.