GREENSBORO, N.C. -- Previewing the round of 32 games at Greensboro Coliseum on Sunday:
No. 10 seed Xavier (22-12) vs. No. 15 seed Lehigh (27-7), 7:45 p.m. ET
Point guard Mackey McKnight seems to be Lehigh’s unofficial spokesman, or at least the Mountain Hawks’ master motivator.
McKnight, a sophomore from New Orleans, wrote Lehigh’s team motto -- “One team. One dream.” -- on the outside of his left sneaker.
He also helped coin another Lehigh motto: “Built to Last.”
“We’re trying to build something that has redemptive value over time,” said Lehigh coach Brett Reed, one of only three NCAA Division I coaches to have earned a doctorate degree.
McKnight’s biggest motivation comes from the worst tragedy of his life. His best friend, Joseph McMillan II, was killed on a Los Angeles County Metro bus in Inglewood, Calif., on Oct. 13, 2010. Police said the bus stopped at a red light and a gunman walked up and fired multiple shots, killing McMillan, who was 18. Police said the crime was gang-related, according to the Los Angeles Times.
“He was just a big-time influence on me,” McKnight said.
McKnight will carry McMillan’s memory into Sunday’s South Region third-round game against 10th-seeded Xavier. With one more victory, the No. 15-seeded Mountain Hawks will become the NCAA tournament’s latest unlikely Sweet 16 participant.
“We just believed in each other,” McKnight said. “You feel confident with your family. We knew every man was going to have everyone’s back. It’s just a beautiful thing playing as one. There are no selfish players in this family. We can rise together as a family.”
Mackey cried after the Mountain Hawks’ 75-70 upset of No. 2 seed Duke in Friday night’s second round. McMillan was a native of Holly, N.C., and McKnight knew his friend would have cherished his team’s upset of the Blue Devils. McKnight said he and McMillan grew up together in New Orleans, where they often played one-on-one games in the driveway of his family’s home.
“He used to pretend he was North Carolina, and I always had to pretend I was Duke,” McKnight said. “I just miss him so much and I’m so grateful he blessed us with this win and is watching over us."
McKnight’s steady play helped the Mountain Hawks get hot at the right time. He has 88 assists in his past 21 games and had only one turnover against Duke. McKnight scored 11 points on 3-for-7 shooting against the Blue Devils, but knows his primary role is to put Patriot League Player of the Year C.J. McCollum in positions to score. McCollum scored 30 points against the Blue Devils.
“Our young guys like Mackey are getting used to the bright lights, and we think we can play with anybody in the country,” McCollum said.
McKnight and McCollum will have to slow down Xavier’s backcourt of Tu Holloway and Mark Lyons, who register a combined 32.5 points and 7.8 assists per game. The Mountain Hawks were able to limit Duke guards Seth Curry and Austin Rivers to only 6-for-23 shooting.
“I think their backcourt is absolutely terrific, to be honest with you,” Reed said. “They have guards that seem to live in the paint. They’re aggressive, they have a tough mentality, they go to where they want to go on the floor. And one of our primary responsibilities is going to be containing dribble penetration.”
McKnight won’t have to look far for motivation.