Lehigh locks up first NCAA tourney berth since '97

BETHLEHEM, Pa. -- Lehigh was on the brink of going from top-seeded to toppled when coach Sue Troyan heard an assuring message from her players.

From the deepest reserve to the starters coming out for a breather, all the Mountain Hawks told Troyan the Patriot League title was only moments away.

"In their mind, there was never, ever a doubt," she said.

Alex Ross hit six 3-pointers and scored 21 points to lead Lehigh to its first conference tournament title in 12 years, beating rival Lafayette 64-56 on Wednesday night.

"I don't want to go back to my boss with a loss to Lafayette in the championship game," Troyan said.

The Mountain Hawks (26-6) are heading to only their second NCAA tournament and first since 1997 when they also beat Lafayette in the title game. Ross helped Lehigh avoid becoming Lafayette's third straight upset victim by sinking all six 3s in the first half to build a double-digit lead that was sliced to one in the final minutes.

"We were going to do anything we had to do," Lehigh forward Melissa Rich said.

They held off a Lafayette (10-22) team that had upset No. 2 seed American and sixth-seeded Navy to reach its first title game in 12 years, two startling results for a team that entered the tournament on a 10-game losing streak.

The Leopards closed in on their third straight stunner with a late charge in the second half that only had them down one late against top-seeded Lehigh.

Jessica Spicer buried a 3 and LaKeisha Wright sank two free throws to pull Lafayette to 55-50. Emily Garner, who scored 15 points, hit a jumper that trimmed the deficit to three. Elizabeth Virgin made a turnaround jumper and it was 55-54 with 3:24 left.

"I felt at that point we were going to be OK and we we'd be able to pull this one out," Lafayette coach Tammy Smith said.

But one of Lafayette's 16 turnovers led to Tricia Smith's driving layup for a 57-54 lead and Lehigh was able to survive the scare and start planning for the postseason.

The public address announced bellowed "Bring on Connecticut!" but a date with the undefeated Huskies seems unlikely. Troyan, the winningest coach in Lehigh history, expected a No. 14 seed when the brackets are announced.

"I'm going to sleep a lot better, I'll tell you that," Troyan said. "There was no pressure coming in on Lafayette and there was a whole lot of pressure on us to get it done."

Garner was the only Leopard in double-digit scoring and they missed 11-of-17 free throws. The Leopards played three games that made it hard to believe they just ended a miserable losing streak

"I know it looks bad, but it's not like we got demolished by 40 points every game," Spicer said.

The Leopards were coming off their first two Patriot League tournament wins in nine years and opened the title game strong, backed by a few hundred fans who made the 10-mile trip and did their best to drown out the home crowd.

Lehigh's 4-for-12 start from the floor had Lafayette thinking about finishing off its astonishing run.

Ross spoiled those plans once she started swishing 3s all around the arc. Her first one snapped a tie, and then she nailed four straight that sent the home crowd at Stabler Arena into a frenzy and gave Lehigh a nine-point lead.

After she nailed that fourth one, she yelled in celebration and pumped her fist as she backpedalled down the court. The basket gave her 17 points, well above her 13.6 average.

"It was one of the best feelings I ever had," Ross said. "I could not hear anything. It was a great atmosphere, probably the best I ever played in."

She scored only one point in the second half.

Lehigh rebounded from the dreadful shooting start to finish the half 11-of-31 and take a 37-27 lead into halftime.

The Mountain Hawks finished 17-0 at home and also won the regular-season and conference tournament title in the same season for the first time.

Lafayette became the first No. 7 seed to reach the conference title game and is still looking for its first NCAA tournament appearance.

Two gutty wins simply weren't enough.

"Everything just clicked," Spicer said. "We'd been waiting for it forever."