Behind every triumph and heartbreak in the NCAA tournament, there’s a story. The Players’ Tribune presents Tales of Madness, a series of first-person accounts from iconic basketball players recalling their most memorable tournament experiences. In this installment, C.J. McCollum remembers Lehigh’s shocking first-round upset over Duke in 2012.
I’m thinking I’m the man. I’ve got on my Lehigh basketball sweats, big smile on my face, ready to go to class. This was the week leading up to the NCAA tournament, and we had just found out that we were going to play Duke in the first round. The whole campus was hyped.
I was walking to campus from my off-campus house when I saw my neighbor from the women’s hoops team across the street. So I walk over to say what’s up, chest all puffed up.
“Hey C.J., what’s going on?” she said. “You excited to play Duke?”
I’m like, “Naw, I’m excited to beat Duke.”
She kind of rolled her eyes.
“Yeah, but who’s gonna guard Austin Rivers?”
“Uh … me.”
“Oh, well good luck with that.”
“Hey, if you have time, do you think you could pass him my number?”
I’ll never forget that. I didn’t know whether to feel disrespected or what. My ego was bruised. I was just like, Oh … damn. I can understand her skepticism. We were the 15 seed after all. But I kept telling people all week that we were going to beat Duke. And I really believed it. In order to have a chance as an underdog, you need to have a certain mentality. You need to be licking your chops at the chance to knock off the juggernaut with 8 million people watching on TV.
The only other 15 seed that I could recall pulling the upset was Steve Nash’s Santa Clara team shocking Arizona in ’93. I was only two years old at the time, but thanks to the magic of YouTube, I was able to watch clips from that game to get me in the right frame of mind. The first thing I noticed was how aggressive he was in attacking Arizona’s defense, especially in the final minutes.
I was thinking, OK, all you need is a guard who can create and a good supporting cast of upperclassmen who aren’t scared of the moment. That’s all it takes to get an upset in the tourney. I told my coaches at practice that week, “If I can get 30 points and 5 assists, we’re going to win.”
Obviously, people laughed at me. My own mom called me up: “Hey, should I fill out a March Madness bracket? I don’t want to pick against my baby and I just know you’re gonna show up against Duke.”
I told her, “Have us losing in the Sweet 16. We’re gonna beat Duke. We’re gonna beat Xavier. Then we’ll probably lose to Baylor.”
Hey, call me a realist.
When we got down to Greensboro, North Carolina, for the tournament, the first thing I noticed was the gear that the Duke players had on. I don’t think people realize how much we pay attention to that stuff. Duke is a Nike Elite school, which means they get a crazy amount of free gear — fitted jerseys, shorts with special dri-fit material, custom shoes, plus all kinds of warm-up stuff. At Lehigh, we got the bare minimum (*cough cough* … until we beat Duke). Our jerseys were the cookie-cutter model with the block letters that you could get from the Eastbay catalog. We would get a few pairs of shoes a year. The big choice was what color you picked: Black or White. I’d wear the same pair for 20 games and then switch to a new pair before the tournament.
One little thing that threw me off was that Nike sent us our tournament shoes and they were low tops. I had never played in low tops before, but you don’t really have a choice. You have to wear the tournament shoes. So I broke them in two days before the Duke game. It felt so weird. Only basketball players will understand why that’s such a big deal.
Going into the game, I knew I had to carry myself with a little bit of swagger. I had to let Duke know that we weren’t going to lay down. North Carolina had played right before us, and Harrison Barnes and Kendall Marshall were hanging around by the tunnel as we were preparing to go out for warm-ups. I told them, “Hey, tell your fans to stay for our game. We’re a small school, bro. We need some support.”
Harrison was laughing, like, “Alright, sure.”
I’m like, “For real. I’m about to put on a show. Stick around.”
When we got on the floor for warmups, the Duke guys were trying to get in our heads. The trash talk started early. “What’s a Lehigh? I never heard of a Lehigh.” Stuff like that. I tried reverse psychology on them. I was like, “Man, you guys got a lot of fans here. Would be a shame if you guys lost, huh?”
When the game tipped off, I knew we had a chance right away. A few minutes in, I crossed-up Josh Harrison on the baseline and I ran back on defense licking my lips.
It’s funny because I couldn’t sleep the other night so I pulled up the game on YouTube and right as I call for the screen the announcer is like, “I think C.J. McCollum can create a shot for somebody else here. He doesn’t have to shoot it unless he’s wide open.” Just as he’s finishing the sentence the ball’s going in.
Right when it went through the net, in my head, I said, “Game.”
Duke missed a jumper on their next possession and my teammate John Adams took it all the way down the court and dunked. That’s when Jim Nantz yells “Absolute Madness!” as the camera shows the Duke crowd totally stunned. That still gives me goosebumps.
I told my coaches I needed 30 points and 5 assists. I ended the game with 30 and 6.
When the clock hit zero, it was insane. I remember walking off the court and seeing some of our cheerleaders with tears streaming down their faces.
When I got to my locker, the first thing I did was check my phone. I was doing numbers, man. I think I had over 100 unread texts at one point. I was getting video of the pandemonium on campus. My Twitter was popping off. I finally got some followers. I thought I was on, man.
Back at the hotel, I couldn’t get to sleep until 4 a.m. I ended up watching all the press conferences. I wanted to see everything. It was so surreal seeing Coach K up there talking about losing to Lehigh. As a kid from a small school trying to prove I could play with the best, it was a crazy moment to hear him talk about me in a complimentary way. He even compared my mentality to Christian Laettner, which I couldn’t believe.
“Him being on the floor makes everyone better,” he said. “When he passes you the ball, you believe you’re suppose to make it.”
I’m sitting in bed watching this in my hotel room like, Whoa. Try going to sleep after that.
We couldn’t help but stay up all night as a team talking about the game, which I think really hurt us in the next game against Xavier. We ended up blowing an 18 point lead and I screwed up my mom’s bracket. It still kills me.
When we got back to campus, it was nuts. We landed at 2 in the morning, and when we finally pulled up to the gym at 3 a.m., there was a big crowd of fans waiting to welcome us home. I mean, this is Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. I couldn’t believe we got a reception like that.
The crazy thing is we got back during mid-term exams. At an academic school like Lehigh, that’s no joke. Luckily I got a shoutout from a few professors. During a lecture, one professor even slipped in a picture of me into his PowerPoint and was like, “This guy missed class last week but I guess he had a pretty good excuse.”
Let’s just say that was probably the best month of my life. A few days later I ran into my neighbor.
I played it cool. “Hey, sorry I wasn’t able to give Austin your number,” I said. “I’m sure you can hit him up on Twitter, though.”
For more stories like this, visit our Tales of Madness page.