Through the walls of the makeshift interview room in Lehigh University’s Stabler Arena — really just a storage area dressed up for the occasion — it was possible every now and then to hear the Holy Cross pep band playing or a random Crusader fan crying out late last Wednesday night, as Mountain Hawks coach Brett Reed and center Tim Kempton dissected what had just happened to them in the Patriot League championship game.
Reed spoke in precise tones — he has a doctorate in instructional technology, after all — while a red-eyed Kempton barely raised his voice above a whisper. This was supposed to be their fairytale, their happy ending, for after beginning the season 0-7 and falling as many as eight games south of .500 they had reeled off 11 straight victories to equal a school record. They entered the PL Tournament as the second seed.
And now they had lost — 59-56, in point of fact — to … to … the ninth seed?
“It really doesn’t matter,” Reed said of that designation, his point being that the Crusaders’ play had made a lie of it.
Nor did the stat sheet matter, since it showed the Crusaders to be the league’s eighth-best 3-point shooting team, and junior forward Malachi Alexander to be far from a sure bet at the foul line (63.1 percent). Yet they connected 11 times from the arc, three more than Lehigh, which led the league in that category. Alexander, who finished with 26 points and was named tournament MVP, splashed in six of those triples (in seven attempts), then made four essential free throws in the final 1:02.
And what mattered least of all was Holy Cross’ record, which now stands at 14-19. The Crusaders had gone 0-9 on the road in conference regular-season play, and had lost their last five games entering the tournament, whether in their gym or someone else’s.
So of course they swept four road games (including a double-overtime thriller against top-seeded Bucknell) to make NCAAs, the first No. 9 seed from the Patriot to advance. According to STATS LLC they are also just the 20th team to enter the field with a losing record since 1985. They face Southern in the First Four, Wednesday in Dayton, Ohio. Lehigh will not be playing in the postseason.
This important reminder, then: Suspension of disbelief is absolutely vital this time of year. In the Big Dance, certainly, but perhaps even more so in small-conference cotillions, where everyone is left to scramble for a single, precious bid.
“I’m really happy for the guys, because it’s been a hard, hard year,” said veteran coach Bill Carmody, in his first season at Holy Cross after previous stops at Princeton and Northwestern.
And harder still to explain this abrupt about-face.
“You’ve got to give me time,” a smiling Carmody said. “We’ve got a four-and-a-half-hour bus ride. Maybe I’ll figure it out.”
During a radio interview on that trip back to Worcester, Mass., Carmody called the Crusaders’ run “improbable” and hinted that it took everyone a while to get on the same page.
Alexander said much the same thing.
“To put it simply, we just gained faith and trust in each other as a unit,” he said.
And in the new coach, he added. Most notably the players came to believe in the 1-3-1 defense Carmody installed in midstream, the one they used to limit Lehigh to 14 first-half points on 26.1-percent shooting.
They also picked up a crucial reinforcement along the way in senior guard/forward Eric Green, who blew out his left ACL in a PL Tournament loss to Bucknell last March 2 and missed the first 16 games of this season.
“I told him not to play this year,” Carmody said, noting that Green didn’t have surgery until May 5 and likely needed more time to make a full recovery.
Green gave it some thought, but wanted to play, wanted to graduate with his class. And while it took him some time to get back in game shape, Carmody believes he “really changed the dynamic of the team.” He is the one who mans the baseline in the 1-3-1, ranging from corner to corner, and at the other end “makes shots that most of our guys don’t make – those 12-footers that are difficult,” according to the coach.
In truth, Green hadn’t made many shots from anywhere entering the Lehigh game. He was averaging 4.1 points a game, with two double-figure outings. But against Lehigh he scored a season-high 13, including a first-half 3-pointer that was just his second of the year. That helped Holy Cross, which never trailed, build a lead as big as 14.
And when Lehigh mounted a second-half charge behind Kempton — he had 13 of his 20 points after the break — Green was among those to make a big shot to keep the Hawks at bay, notably a pull-up jumper with 6:49 left to trigger the 6-0 mini-spurt that pushed the lead to 50-40.
That it came on a play similar to the one on which he was injured — a jump stop while going right to left – was inconsequential.
“I don’t really think about it anymore,” he said.
It came down to the very end, with the Hawks getting four looks at a potential game-tying 3-pointer on their final trip. And doing so before a section of baseline stands packed from floor to ceiling with Lehigh students, all of them shrieking, beseeching.
First guard Kyle Leufroy. Then fellow guard Kahron Ross. Then Leufroy again. Then Ross one last time.
All of them no good. Holy Cross wins.
But really not. Not this time of year.
Above: Holy Cross players celebrate last week during the Patriot League tournament. They will be playing in the first round of the NCAA Tournament after upsetting the field in the conference tournament. (Courtesy the Patriot League)