GREENSBORO, N.C. – Norfolk State's moment in the spotlight lasted roughly three hours.
Lehigh became the story of the 2012 NCAA tournament and beyond after scoring one of the tournament's greatest upsets in beating second-seeded Duke 75-70. Lehigh followed Norfolk State as the second No. 15 seed to win Friday – and just the sixth ever. Four No. 15 seeds had won in the past 27 years. Friday, two of them won in a three-hour stretch.
But beating second-seeded Missouri, as Norfolk State did, is no comparison with knocking off a blue-blood program such as Duke, and in the Blue Devils' backyard no less.
"The game is a great game," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "I've been in it for 37 years and it gives you some incredible highs and it also takes you to incredible lows. Tonight is one of those lows."
To make it worse, the historic loss happened in front of a Greensboro Coliseum crowd nearly half-filled with North Carolina fans, who watched their Tar Heels win earlier in the day and delighted in going bananas for Lehigh throughout the upset.
"We really appreciated the North Carolina fans and all the support we got from them," Lehigh forward Jordan Hamilton said. "We don't often play in these types of environments, so when there's a lot of energy and a crowd behind us, we really feed off that."
It wasn't just that Duke lost, either. More than that was the fashion in which Lehigh controlled the tone. It didn't look like a tiny, lovable intramural team that uses fortunate bounces, scrappy play and hot shooting to kneecap the giant.
This was different. Lehigh played the aggressor. It rattled Duke. The Mountain Hawks' guards were cocky (and for good reason), and they managed to get inside the Blue Devils' heads. Lehigh's big men weren't as big as Duke's, but they were tougher.
Across the board, Lehigh played more physically and confidently the entire night.
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"They just played tough, hard-nosed defense," Duke center Miles Plumlee said. "They were denying the post, denying the passing lanes, playing physical, crashing the boards; that's what you expect."
Everything about Plumlee's statement is dead-on – except the last part. Duke looked as if that was the last thing it was expecting from Lehigh. Early on, the Blue Devils seemed surprised. Midway through the game, they looked intimidated. Toward the end, they looked just plain helpless.
Meanwhile, Lehigh players smiled and laughed throughout. They yapped in the Blue Devils' ears. Justin Maneri, a little-used center, had to be restrained by teammates after things got a bit snippy. Mackey McKnight dribbled the ball between his legs over and over again, with a little shaking of his hips added in for good measure, as he set up the offense.
And, above all, Lehigh had the best player on the court in C.J. McCollum. By far.
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McCollum, a junior guard, even said so himself.
"Definitely," he answered when asked if he was the best player in the game. "I don't mean to sound cocky or anything like that, but I work extremely hard and I felt like it was a good matchup for myself and my team."
McCollum scored 30 points and added six rebounds, six assists, two steals and countless moments of driving the Duke guards – who combined to shoot 9-of-32 – absolutely crazy.
Krzyzewski said McCollum was one of the best players Duke faced all season.
Gabe Knutson deserves nearly as much credit. Knutson, a 6-foot-9, 220-pounder, found himself in the middle of the bigger Plumlee brothers inside most of the night, and still managed to come up with 17 points and eight rebounds.
"We tried to be the aggressor," he said. "Obviously, they're a tremendous team and we respect them, but we came in with the confidence."
And down the stretch, when it is customary for the underdog to crumble and the powerhouse to prevail, roles remained reversed. Lehigh took the lead with 8:21 left and never gave it up. Duke closed it to two points with 3:13 remaining, but the Mountain Hawks dominated those final minutes, breaking free in the open court for dunks and getting open looks from the perimeter.
"Miscommunication," Duke guard Andre Dawkins explained. "Guys didn't talk. Games come down to plays like that."
Nope, Duke was not Duke on Friday night. And it wasn't just the poor shooting performance (6-of-26 from 3-point range) or defensive meltdowns when it most needed a stop. It was in the way the Blue Devils carried themselves and ultimately backed down from a Patriot League team.
Everything just seemed reversed here. Even Lehigh's reaction did not fit the enormity of the situation. The buzzer sounded and the Mountain Hawks exchanged a few back slaps and high fives, shook hands with Duke, saluted their fans, then calmly headed to the locker room.
This wasn't exactly the chaos that ensued following Hampton's upset of second-seeded Iowa State in 2001, when players lifted Pirates coach Steve Merfeld into the air, his legs kicking and arms flailing like a bug, in an iconic March Madness moment.
Lehigh's reaction was more of what you'd expect of the No. 2 seed in victory, not the No. 15.
"We had to act like we've been there before," Knutson said. "Obviously, we hadn't."
Only five others had, and none had taken down a program as powerful as Duke.
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- Norfolk State