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For Holy Cross, the mentality makes a big difference

January 22, 2014 Columns No Comments

WORCESTER, Mass. – It’s all about the mentality at Holy Cross of late. The last week has seen two good wins and the team play good basketball to get there, and with it a commensurate confidence boost. While there’s still a hill to climb, the Crusaders look to be in a good place in terms of how they are going about everything.

Holy Cross has had to deal with injuries, and while they haven’t had to as much as some teams have, they have had to adjust a good deal along the way. They had to go without Cullen Hamilton early on due to a knee injury, and just when he appeared to be coming into his own he then came back and aggravated it. They had to shut him down for a stretch so he can heal enough to play the rest of the season.

As much as anything, this team’s press and halfcourt defensive pressure was going to be a key to success. Without Hamilton, they have used a smaller but quicker lineup and at times a more defensive-minded one with Eric Green getting more minutes alongside Malcolm Miller. They rallied from a 14-point deficit to win at Army last week, then on Saturday shut down Lehigh after the Mountain Hawks got off to a good start, holding them to 36 points in the final 36 minutes of the game.

“That was a huge shot in the arm, to be down 14 points and come back like that,” head coach Milan Brown said of the win at Army. “As the season goes, you’re always building momentum, and sometimes it gets stopped. Our momentum mainly got stopped by injuries. I think the guys have gotten accustomed to playing with the lineups the way they have.”

Brown said they have to give their pressure some time in each game. It’s not going to create a turnover or contested shot on every possession, but if they do it enough they can start to wear teams down and figure out how they are attacking it. It took a few minutes on Saturday, but Lehigh shot under 27 percent from the field in the first half and never got going in the second half.

“We made a couple of good plays, and once the ball went through the basket, we were able to set our full-court pressure up, which always helps us,” said Brown.

Besides Hamilton, junior point guard Justin Burrell has missed three games and freshman Robert Champion is currently sidelined as well. Taylor Abt has played through nagging injuries, and big man Dave Dudzinski has taken a pounding all season long but continues to compete and produce.

Miller has long been the team’s X-factor. He has the length to be a good defender, and he’s continued to do that. Offensively, when he’s aggressive he can score all day, as he’s athletic, can shoot over defenders and can create opportunities without much effort. Saturday was his fourth straight double-digit scoring game, as he scored 14 points on 5-8 shooting. It’s no accident that the Crusaders have won three of those four games.

“The coaches have been telling me to attack a lot more,” said Miller. “I’ve been trying to get an aggressive mindset and find shots for myself and find shots for my teammates.”

It goes along with what the team has been trying to do. With freshman Anthony Thompson joining Burrell in the starting lineup of late, the Crusaders are very small in the backcourt but also very quick. They have to make up for their size with how they play, and they have to be aggressive with their pressure. They wanted to press coming into the season, and now there’s more urgency for that.

Thompson and Malachi Alexander have helped pick up the slack with Hamilton out. In between the injuries, Hamilton has blossomed after a freshman year where he showed promise but didn’t shoot as well as he’s capable of. Thompson has emerged with a bigger role, and Alexander is one of the best freshmen in the Patriot League. Alexander had a stretch where he struggled, but appears to be playing through that and is being more effective again. The staff has worked with him on having ways to score that he can go to all the time, and that along with realizing he has to play through the long season has made a difference. He had 13 points on 5-7 shooting on Saturday, along with four rebounds, two assists and no turnovers.

“The second game of his college career, he had 23 points and ten rebounds, so he probably thought college is easy, and it’s not,” Brown said of Alexander. “It’s good to see him step up and make plays and play the way he’s capable of playing, and I also think it helps that his buddy Anthony has played well, too. Both of those guys have done a good job.”

Holy Cross started league play at Boston University, then played American at home. Those two schools are tied atop the league. Road games at Bucknell and Army are never easy, but they won the latter and are now 3-3 in league play heading into a trip to Lafayette on Wednesday night. The Crusaders appear to know what they have in terms of personnel and how to play with it, and if they get Hamilton back and maintain the mentality they have now, they could certainly be a factor in the league race come late February.

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