The 2011-2012 Lehigh men’s basketball team is lauded for one of the most successful seasons in program history after beating No. 2 Duke in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
However the Mountain Hawks’ legendary upset over the Blue Devils may have never happened if it weren’t for beating Bucknell 82-77 in the Patriot League Championship after splitting the first two matchups in conference play.
Gabe Knutson, ‘13, a junior forward in 2012, said if he compared beating Duke to Bucknell, beating Bucknell meant more to him.
“To be able to steal a championship from them on their home floor was special,” Knutson said.
Knutson was the second-leading scorer for Lehigh in 2012 and played a key role in the team’s ability to slow down defending conference Player of the Year Mike Muscala. Muscala, like Portland Trailblazers guard, C.J. McCollum, ‘13, went on to play in the NBA.
At the start of the season, it was presumed to be a two-horse race for which team would win the league, with Lehigh having won the title in 2010 and Bucknell winning it in 2011.
A trip to the Big Dance was on the line when the two teams squared off in March 2012.
Bucknell had an early edge in the rivalry that year, besting the Mountain Hawks 68-61 the first go around on Jan.18.
The team said the loss is what helped Lehigh win the next two matchups.
“(That loss) got us a little bit more focused and motivated,” head coach Brett Reed said. “We knew that they were a good team, and we knew we’d have another shot. The disappointment of a loss actually was a motivating factor moving forward.”
Assistant coach Harry Morra said there’s an old adage: “It’s hard to beat a team three times in one year.” Heading into the second matchup, Lehigh used previous failure as motivation for a successful outing.
McCollum said he was thinking about losing in that very building during the previous season’s Patriot League Tournament when the Mountain Hawks suffered a 66-64 loss in the semi-finals.
With a revenge mentality that game, McCollum hit a three-pointer to give Lehigh the 56-53 win.
“It’s like being in the driveway, and what you work on in an empty gym,” McCollum said. “You got an iso at the top of the key, clocks winding down, you’re counting 5, 4, 3 … like that. I just went to my comfort, right to the left crossover pull up, and basically left almost no time and was able to knock it down.”
Despite beating Bucknell the second time around, the Bison had a better conference record and was the No.1 seed in the Patriot League Tournament. With home court advantage, the third matchup was set in Lewisburg.
After defeating Colgate in the quarter-finals and American in the semi-finals, there was only one game remaining to punch a ticket to the NCAA Tournament.
Reed said the Mountain Hawks knew what was at stake, and the opportunity to compete against Bucknell again was enough motivation going into their final battle of the season.
“I can vividly remember Lehigh guys being at the free-throw line and (Bucknell’s) student section was literally on the stanchion shaking it,” Morra said.
But Bucknell’s home court advantage wasn’t enough to defeat Lehigh. The Mountain Hawks won 82-77 and went on to beat Duke — and shock the world.
Although Lafayette is known as Lehigh’s biggest rival, Knutson said Bucknell always maintained a strong presence during his four years in the program because of how talented they were.
Morra said the matchup brought the best out of both teams because of the star power the two sides possessed, with each team having their own NBA prospects at the time and numerous others who went on to play professionally.
“When you’re a competitor, you want to go against other people who are great, too, and that matchup seemed to bring out the best in both of us,” Reed said.