- Kieran Darcy, ESPNNewYork.com
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We asked ESPNNewYork.com's beat writers to rank their five top stories of 2011. Next up: Kieran Darcy, who covered the area colleges through a season of inspiration and individual greatness. Check out Kieran's picks and add yours in the comments section.
1. Eric LeGrand returns to field
It's hard to top what happened at High Point Solutions Stadium in Piscataway on Oct. 29, when Eric LeGrand led the Rutgers football team out of the tunnel and onto the field just prior to their game against West Virginia. Doctors predicted that LeGrand would never breathe again without the help of a ventilator after he was paralyzed from the neck down in a game against Army in Oct. 2010. But he has defied the odds, including standing for extended periods of time in therapy, and predicts he will one day walk again. In the meantime, he spent this season working as an analyst on Rutgers radio broadcasts. And no one who was in the stadium that day will ever forget when LeGrand rolled out of that tunnel, and the ovation he received.
2. St. John's returns to Big Dance
Steve Lavin was hired in the spring of 2010 to bring St. John's basketball back to national prominence, and it didn't take him very long. In his very first season as head coach, Lavin led the Red Storm to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2002, after a 21-11 campaign that included six wins against Top 25 opponents. On March 13, St. John's saw its name in lights on the CBS Selection Sunday telecast, awarded a No. 6 seed in the Southeast Region. But just four days later, the Red Storm -- without injured forward D.J. Kennedy -- were upset by No. 11 seed Gonzaga in Denver, bringing this memorable season to a bittersweet end.
3. The Kemba Show
New Yorkers were treated to one of the most incredible runs in college basketball history in March, when UConn won an unprecedented five games in five days to win the Big East tournament. New York City native Kemba Walker scored 130 points in those five contests, demolishing the record for most points in a Division I conference tournament. In the championship game against Louisville, an exhausted Walker still managed to lead the Huskies with 19 points -- but his unselfishness was the key to the 69-66 victory. And we all know what happened three weeks later, when Walker capped off his collegiate career with a national championship.
4. LIU, St. Peter's go Dancing, too
St. John's wasn't the only local college hoops team to hear its name called on Selection Sunday 2011. Long Island U. and St. Peter's also made it into the Big Dance, by winning their respective conference tournaments. LIU, the regular season champ in the NEC, beat Robert Morris in overtime to earn its fourth NCAA bid, and first since 1997. St. Peter's, the No. 4 seed in the MAAC, upset No. 2 seed Iona to make its third NCAA trip, and first since 1995. The Blackbirds, awarded a No. 15 seed in the East Region, lost to No. 2 North Carolina 102-87. The Peacocks, awarded a No. 14 seed in the Southwest Region, lost to No. 3 Purdue 65-43.
5. Lavin diagnosed with prostate cancer
We all received a shock in early April, right after the college basketball season ended, when St. John's coach Steve Lavin revealed that he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. Lavin had surgery on Oct. 6, and the good news is that he is cancer-free. But after coming back to coach four games early this season, Lavin is now on an indefinite leave of absence from the sideline, as he continues to try to recover his physical stamina. His absence, combined with three incoming recruits being ruled academically ineligible in September and the recent transfer of starting guard Nurideen Lindsey, has led to a tumultuous start to his second season on the job in Queens.
Eric LeGrand leading Rutgers on the field heads our top five Colleges stories of 2011.