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Lehigh vows it’s not satisfied with just one NCAA tournament upset

By David Teel, Daily Press (Newport News, Va.) –

GREENSBORO, N.C. — C.J. McCollum was 5-foot-6 and overweight. Not exactly what Mike Krzyzewski, Roy Williams and Tom Izzo are looking for in a prospect.

But that’s the beauty of sports in general and college basketball in particular. An athlete who doesn’t fit the classic mold grows and develops in relative obscurity and lands in the lap of a school such as Lehigh.

And then, Lehigh rises up to slay a giant like Duke in the NCAA tournament.

So it transpired Friday night, when McCollum was the best player on the court, scoring 30 points to lead the Mountain Hawks over the Blue Devils, 75-70.

The victory made Lehigh the sixth No. 15 seed to advance in an NCAA tournament. Sunday, the Mountain Hawks attempt to become the first 15 to win two games when they face Xavier (22-12).

“We’re very happy and proud of ourselves for the win last night,” senior forward Jordan Hamilton said Saturday. “But we still feel that there’s more for us to accomplish in this tournament and this season, and we’re really not ready to leave.”

If Patriot League champion Lehigh (27-7) wins to reach the South Regional semifinals, it will be thanks to McCollum, now a 6-3 junior and the nation’s No. 5 scorer at 22.1 points per game.

McCollum hails from Canton, Ohio, hardly a basketball outback. State schools Akron, Kent State, Bowling Green and Miami showed interest, but none offered a scholarship.

“I was 5-6, a little chubby, spot up 3-point shooter, so I couldn’t blame the schools for not recruiting me,” McCollum said. “But then my junior year, I was 5-11, hit a little growth spurt. But throughout the whole experience, AAU experience, I was basically a two guard in a (point) guard’s body, being short and being a scorer first.”

No matter. Lehigh coach Brett Reed was smitten immediately.

“The first time I saw C.J. McCollum, I thought he was a terrific player,” Reed said. “And I thought he was somebody that could come in and immediately help us. Really, I think I saw value in a package that wasn’t necessarily as glamorous as you might necessarily expect from a college player. I saw talent. I saw a feel for the game, a basketball IQ, and just a smoothness about him that I really valued.

“Now, physically he was a little bit underdeveloped and also undersized. Because of that, his package wasn’t necessarily what you would really want to have at the Division I level. But getting to know him, seeing his desire, and also getting the great feel for his game and all the different things that he could do, I thought it was more important to really search that talent and that character.”

With no wireless connection in their hotel and little free time as they prepare for Xavier, McCollum and his teammates aren’t aware of all that has transpired on campus since their conquest of Duke. Forward Gabe Knutson said he heard tales of tree burnings, and everyone’s Twitter following has multiplied exponentially.

Lehigh was the second 15 seed to win Friday, joining Norfolk State, and while we in the 757 know plenty about the Spartans, alma mater of former NBA all-star Bob Dandridge and a CIAA power during their Division II days, we know little of the Mountain Hawks.

Founded by railroad tycoon Asa Packer — distant relative of Billy Packer? — as a technical school in 1865, Lehigh is located in Bethlehem, Pa., about 60 miles north of Philadelphia. The private university has 4,766 undergraduates and is most renowned for its engineering program.

The average starting salary for 2011 graduates was $55,521, which can only mean Lehigh produces darn few sportswriters. Lehigh’s most prominent alum is auto magnate Lee Iacocca, who at age 87, probably doesn’t shoot the three as well as in his prime.

The school’s teams were known as the Engineers — a tribute to the Lehigh Valley Railroad — until 1995-96. Wanting to shed its image as strictly an engineering school, Lehigh adopted the Mountain Hawk as its mascot and later gave it a name: Clutch.

Lehigh was clutch, and then some, Friday.

“Immediately after the game, I wanted to make sure that our players had a chance to enjoy the moment, enjoy the experience,” Reed said. “It was really something special that Lehigh was able to do last evening.

“However, I did also quickly ask every person, number one, if they had enjoyed it and are enjoying it; and the answer was an obvious yes. It was basically a softball set up to ask the second question, and that was, ‘Are you satisfied?’ “

The Mountain Hawks say they are not.

“I think we’re something that this tournament’s never really seen before,” Hamilton said. “But I know people like to draw comparisons and try to categorize, but I really believe that we’re our own unique team.”

A victory Sunday and spot in the Sweet 16 would make Lehigh unique, indeed.

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