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Season opener a big boost for Holy Cross as they keep growing

November 17, 2014 Columns No Comments

BOSTON – The Holy Cross players have believed in what Milan Brown and his staff are trying to do. The buy-in has been there and the team has grown in part by believing in the process and the game plan every time out. The gains have been incremental, with some good wins along the way, but there’s nothing like a big win to really drive it home and make them believe in it that much more.

The Crusaders got that with a 58-57 win over Harvard on Sunday, and in a game that showed how much they have grown up.

Holy Cross’ goal is to speed teams up and turn them over. They did that often to Harvard, forcing 24 turnovers on Sunday. A testament to its effectiveness is the nine turnovers that Siyani Chambers, one of the best guards in the Ivy League, committed on the afternoon, while scoring just one point. They turned those turnovers into 27 points, helping to negate Harvard’s better shooting on the afternoon.

“It was a great opportunity for us to make a statement about how we want to play the entire season, and we capitalized on that from the very tip of the game,” said guard Justin Burrell.

More than turning the Crimson over as they wanted to, though, this team persevered and stuck to the game plan. They started fast, scoring the first eight points of the game and the first nine of the second half, something they have talked about. The game had four ties and six lead changes, and any of the times they lost the lead in the second half could have been demoralizing. They were up against a veteran team that has won a game in each of the past two NCAA Tournaments. Harvard at one point scored nine unanswered points to take a 46-41 lead. A steal and dunk started a rally to tie it, then it was a back-and-forth game until Harvard opened up a 55-51 lead.

At that point, the Crusaders had to dig deep. They did, with a pair of seniors – Burrell and Malcolm Miller – leading the way like seniors are supposed to. They have been through a lot in their time in Worcester, between the team’s struggles at times and their own as players, along with some successes like Burrell winning the Patriot League Rookie of the Year three years ago. Brown said that, “In basketball terms, these two guys are grown men.”

On Sunday, they came up big often, especially late, as Burrell got a layup and two free throws off a turnover to start, then Miller got two free throws, all in a decisive 7-0 run.

Burrell had 16 points on 5-10 shooting, four assists and three steals, and hit shots at key junctures. Miller had 12 points, but kept competing. He’s had a long journey to becoming a more aggressive offensive player, while defense hasn’t been a challenge. He had a hand in trying to limit Harvard’s Wesley Saunders, who did all he could to carry the Crimson but didn’t have an easy time of it.

It’s not quite accurate to say that last year, Holy Cross definitely loses a game like this, though they were in one like it to open the season against Harvard in the same setting. Two years ago, even late in that season, they certainly do. The Crusaders showed a lot of growth last season and are very much a veteran team now. They start three seniors, and no one in Sunday’s starting lineup was making their first career start. They had a good finish to the season in a strong Patriot League and won a CIT game.

Still, this is a big win for the program’s revival under Brown. It’s not so much from the stature of the opponent – Holy Cross does have a lot of winning tradition going back many years and has won against great teams – as much as it is a further confidence booster. Harvard was ranked, albeit in a preseason poll and those are even less meaningful than a poll in February, but they are arguably the hottest program in New England not named Connecticut right now. When the season opener was mentioned a week earlier, Brown had a look of fear about the game, though it was playful; he knows how good Harvard is and knew this would be a difficult game, but one they could win. It was more respect for the opponent than anything else.

Miller knows it’s big for this team. He also knows that it’s just one game in a long season, while understanding the significance of the win.

“It’s the first stepping stone of a long season and it’s the first step of a long journey to try to go get greatness and be where we want to be at the end of the year,” said the senior forward.

Brown and the staff talked about how Holy Cross remained aggressive and stuck to the game plan on Sunday. They played the way they wanted to, and the way they think they can play. This is a team that is mature and can play through adversity. Sunday showed it, and the result is a big win for the program and their confidence to start the season.

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