Lehigh tops Lafayette for NCAA bid
BETHLEHEM, Pa. (AP)—C.J. McCollum draped the remains of the cut-down net around his neck. He held one Patriot League trophy with all previous winners listed on the side and Zahir Carrington hoisted a second one just for the 2010 champs.
Carrington tried to rip down a more unique keepsake from Lehigh’s championship: a rim. Carrington sealed Lehigh’s fourth trip to the NCAA tournament with two punishing dunks late as he tried to turn the rim into a piece of scrap metal.
“There was nothing to leave out there,” Carrington said. “This is such a long time coming for us.”
Carrington had 18 points and 10 rebounds and McCollum scored 20 points to lead Lehigh to the Patriot League title and into its first NCAA tournament in six years in a 74-59 win over Lafayette on Friday.
“No offense to those guys, but they just didn’t want it as bad as we did,” Carrington said.
The Mountain Hawks (22-10) are going to the tournament for the fourth time in team history (1985, 1988, 2004). They know they’ll likely face a single-digit seed in the opener, but they hardly cared on this night after winning on their home court in front of a raucous crowd.
Coach Brett Reed is taking Lehigh, which never trailed, to the tournament in his third season.
“We’re excited about the opportunity to go out, play and challenge, even if it’s a No. 1 seed,” Reed said. “I don’t think there’s any way possible we’ll be in the opening-round game.”
The longtime heated rivals, separated by less than 15 minutes of drive time, met for the 213th time, but for the first time in the championship game. The student sections were packed—a few Lafayette students were kicked out by security for crashing the Lehigh side—and the 5,500-seat Stabler Arena had the boisterous environment worthy of such a big game.
The Mountain Hawks gave their fans every reason to go crazy. They hit 3s for their first nine points of the game and never stopped putting pressure on the Leopards.
The Leopards (19-13) shook off their six-point halftime deficit and finally put together a run early in the second half that had them threatening to become the first No. 3 seed in Patriot League tournament history to win the championship. Jim Mower nailed a 3-pointer that pulled Lafayette within one, at 51-50, for the first time all game.
Dave Buchberger, who scored 13 points, answered with his 3-pointer in front of the team bench that gave the Mountain Hawks a bit of breathing room. Michael Ojo turned a steal into a layup and scored inside the next time down for a six-point lead.
“I felt the game was well in hand even at the closest moments,” Carrington said.
Carrington had the ball and rim in hand to end the game with an exclamation point. His first late monster dunk gave Lehigh a 10-point lead. It seemed like the 6-foot-7 forward tried to rip the rim off the backboard on his second one, which sent the crowd into a frenzy. The Mountain Hawks on the bench started hopping in anticipation of the final horn and their shot at March Madness.
No surprise, the fans mobbed the court to take part in all the fun. Most of them stuck around to watch the Mountain Hawks take their turns cutting the net.
Ryan Willen had 16 points and 10 rebounds for Lafayette. The Leopards missed 20 of 23 3-point attempts.
“The potential is there for a huge learning curve for them to learn from this game,” Lafayette coach Fran O’Hanlon said. “We’ll find out. I hope they do because we learned a lesson today.”
Making nearly all his shots on dunks, Carrington was a dominant 9 for 11 from the floor. McCollum, the Patriot League player and rookie of the year, was 7 for 15 and the duo helped the Mountain Hawks shoot 58 percent in the second half. Dave Buchberger scored 13 points
McCollum proved he was a force in the seldom-seen Patriot League all season. Now he gets the chance to play on the biggest stage in basketball.
“This is a good time for everybody to showcase their skills in the national level,” McCollum said.
The Mountain Hawks, who set a school-record for wins, added to the lopsided total of No. 1 seeds winning the conference tournament: make it 16 out of 20 in Patriot League history.