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A Turnaround for the Ages: Behind Lehigh’s Improbable Run to the Patriot League Final

Fifty-four days. Eleven games. That’s how long it took for Lehigh University’s men’s basketball team to beat a division one opponent this season. Now it’s March, and just one game sits between the Mountain Hawks and the sixth NCAA tournament appearance in school history.

Lehigh went 3-9 in out of conference play (1-9 against D1 teams), and while that doesn’t appear to be ideal, it really wasn’t as bad as it seems. The Mountain Hawks played the 36th most difficult non-conference schedule per KenPom, more difficult than 73 of the 80 “power 6” conference teams. This schedule featured four road games at power six opponents, and they managed to remain competitive for an extended period of time in three of them (North Carolina, Providence, and Penn State).

In fact, freshman guard Cameron Gillus believes the rough non-conference stretch helped them get to where they are now.

“I think it prepared me very well along with my team. It allowed us to grow, experience different levels of competition, and ultimately compete against very good players and teams,” he explained. “We knew this would help us as we entered conference play, knowing that we had been up against the best.”

The results have been clear. On their way to the conference championship, the sixth-seeded Mountain Hawks won nine of their last eleven games. But none were quite as special as Sunday’s semifinal win over Boston University.

With seventeen seconds left on the clock, Gillus stepped up to the free throw line, his team trailing by one, season on the line. Despite the pressure, he calmly knocked down both shots to provide his team with a one point lead over the Terriers. A Boston free throw with three seconds left would send the game into overtime.

The high stakes and competitive matchup fueled an all-time performance from Gillus.

“We were down for the entire first half. I had made some shots and played pretty well throughout, and I had the mindset going into the second half that I would have to provide a spark to get us going.”

Providing a spark was a humble way to put it. The freshman guard fueled a fire that was large enough to erase a 16-point halftime deficit.

“Throughout the second half, I was really in a zone, and it felt like every shot I took was going in,” Gillus continued, “In my mind, I was really set that we were not going to lose this game.”

The youngster was, without a doubt, in the zone. He finished with 30 points, making 9 of his 12 field goal attempts, all while notching 4 rebounds and 3 assists. Most importantly, Lehigh left Boston with an 84-79 overtime victory.

Gillus was extremely proud of both his own and his team’s performance: “After the game, it was kind of a surreal feeling to think about how I had just performed and how we came back from a large deficit.”

The victory over Boston advanced Lehigh to the conference championship game where they’ll match up against Colgate. Pulling off one final win is attainable, but it’s going to be difficult.

The Patriot League sets up their conference tournament so that the higher seed gets to play games on their own home court. Thanks to their impressive 16-2 conference record, Colgate earned the one seed and the right to host all of their conference tournament games. In addition to their dominance this year, Colgate has sat atop the Patriot League for a while now, appearing in six straight championship games, winning in 2019 and every year from 2021-2023.

Gillus acknowledged that the team is well aware of Colgate’s strength, but it’s not something that fazes him.

“Colgate is a very good team, but we will attack this game with a mindset that we belong in this moment and will play as such,” Gillus explained, "We know we are capable of going out and beating any team if we play to our standards and we expect nothing less in the championship.”

These two teams saw each other just over a week ago, a game that resulted in a 63-60 win for the Raiders. Coincidently, their January meeting was also a three point win for Colgate, this time 60-57.

Can Colgate continue their dominance, or will rising star Cameron Gillus and the red-hot Lehigh Mountain Hawks extend their Cinderella run to the NCAA tournament?

The game will be televised live on CBS Sports Network at 7:00 pm on Wednesday, March 13th. For those unable to watch, be sure to follow along with my live updates on Twitter/X (@Austin_Cree).

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