GREENSBORO, N.C.—On paper, Duke seemed to have everything in its favor in a second round NCAA tournament matchup with Lehigh. The Blue Devils boasted a more prestigious program, four national championships, one of the nation’s top freshmen and the winningest coach of all time.
But the Mountain Hawks had C.J. McCollum.
McCollum quickly established himself as the best player on the floor, carrying No. 15 seed Lehigh to a 75-70 upset of No. 2 seed Duke at the Greensboro Coliseum.
“He’s been their player of the year,” head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “He’s really one of the outstanding players in the country. You could see why tonight.”
The junior guard from Canton, Ohio led all scorers with 30 points on 9-of-24 shooting from the field, and also added six assists and six rebounds. McCollum supplemented his subpar field goal percentage by getting to the free throw line 16 times, converting 10 of those opportunities.
The Blue Devils used a multitude of defenders on the versatile McCollum, and Duke’s guards got into foul trouble early. Junior Seth Curry took a seat after registering his fourth foul just over two minutes into the second half. By the 6:22 mark of the final period, Tyler Thornton and Mason Plumlee had joined Curry with four fouls while Andre Dawkins carried three, and Thornton fouled out in crunch time with just over a minute to play.
The foul situation did not alleviate the Blue Devils’ shooting woes, as the squad struggled from long range the entire game. Duke missed its first nine chances from behind the 3-point line, before Austin Rivers converted with 1:56 to play in the first half to tie the game at 26. Curry and Dawkins—the Blue Devils’ second- and third-most accurate long-range shooters—combined to go just 2-for-12 from beyond the arc.
The Mountain Hawks pestered Duke on the perimeter throughout the contest. In all, the Blue Devils converted only 6-of-26 3-point attempts, while Lehigh grabbed seven steals and forced 13 turnovers. The quickness of McCollum and backcourt teammate Mackey McKnight made it difficult for Duke’s guards to penetrate the lane, forcing low percentage shot attempts from well beyond the arc.
“We know how great offensively they are,” McKnight said. “So we just tried to maintain the pressure consistently throughout the game and just tried to get them off their game.”
Despite the poor shooting day, the Blue Devils had opportunities to win in a back-and-forth second half. The Mountain Hawks never led by more than five until the final two minutes, and Duke jumped out to its own five-point lead to begin the second half—its largest of the game. On the Blue Devils’ second possession of the half, Thornton connected with Mason Plumlee on an alley-oop, then answered a tying 3-pointer by Lehigh’s Gabe Knutson with a 3-pointer of his own. After a Plumlee block, Josh Hairston went up-and-under for a layup to give Duke a five-point lead with just over 17 minutes to play.
But McCollum would not let the Blue Devils pull away. McCollum scored 18 of his 30 points in the second half, including a 3-pointer with 2:26 remaining to extend the lead to five just as Duke started to gain momentum. With less than a second remaining, his two free throws iced the victory.
The Blue Devils played without junior forward Ryan Kelly for the second weekend in a row. Kelly, who has been nursing a foot sprain, is Duke’s most accurate 3-point shooter, making 40.8 percent of his deep shots on the season. Krzyzewski hinted that despite the two games without Kelly at the ACC tournament, his absence may have contributed to the Blue Devils’ stagnant offense.
“When you introduce something new at this time of the year, there’s a tendency not to be in sync,” Krzyzewski said. “Especially with the pressure of the game or how well a team is playing against you. And that to me added to being tentative.”
The loss marks the first time Duke has lost in the Round of 64 since 2007, when the sixth-seeded Blue Devils dropped their opening game to Virginia Commonwealth, and is only the program’s third loss in the Round of 64 since tournament expansion in 1985. The loss was also the second of the day for a second-seeded team, as Missouri fell to No. 15 Norfolk State, 86-84 in earlier action.
“I don’t like to grade losses,” Krzyzewski said. “It’s just because this is the ending of the season, it’s particularly tough.”
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