WORCESTER, Mass. – Milan Brown was fired up. He was as fired up as he’s ever been, really. As the Holy Cross mentor headed to his post-game radio interview, there was more than just a pep in his step. It’s because in beating Lehigh 58-52 on Sunday, his team showed him something he knew they had in them, but haven’t always shown.
“When adversity hits, it starts to show a little bit of your character,” said Brown. “This is who I thought we were, but we’re starting to understand and know who’s in the foxhole with us.”
Saturday’s game had plenty of adversity for the Crusaders, just like their season. It’s a season that began with plenty of promise, as they won their first three games including the opener over Harvard at the Boston Garden. This team was expected to contend in the Patriot League. But between injuries, tough losses and perhaps some struggles with confidence along the way, they fell into a rut and fell back in the league standings.
Despite the struggles, Holy Cross has now won back-to-back games for the second time since that season-opening streak. They are also still within striking distance of a good seed in the league tournament, and it’s not far-fetched to think they could host at least one tournament game.
“It definitely feels good to string some wins together, because we know we’re going to have to do the same thing when tournament time comes,” said senior forward Malcolm Miller.
Holy Cross really locked down at the defensive end in the first half, holding Lehigh to 30 percent shooting and forcing nine turnovers. While they didn’t shoot so well themselves (32.4 percent), they gave the ball away just once and had a 22-19 rebounding edge, helping them to a 30-18 lead at the break. They built the lead up to 16 in the second, but Lehigh rallied, and that’s where this team showed something they haven’t at times.
As Lehigh got within four thanks to an 8-0 run, Holy Cross may have been pressing a bit. This was going to be the make-or-break point in the game for them. Malachi Alexander turned it over, but they made a big play to stop a Tim Kempton layup attempt. Then after the teams traded turnovers, Lehigh point guard Kahron Ross missed a three-pointer, Eric Green rebounded and led Christopher Morgan for a breakaway dunk to put the Crusaders up 52-46. Right after that, a scrum ensued after they battled for a rebound. Kempton got the ball, but Cullen Hamilton tried to get it back and fouled him, but that was another thing that fired up the coach.
“I loved it because at the time, besides Justin (Burrell), the next smallest guy on our squad that was out there was Cullen, and he was out there rolling with the biggest guy in the gym,” said Brown. “That part of it is showing toughness, not because he was rolling on the floor with him, the toughness part is he was willing to put his body in front of the biggest guy in the gym and say, ‘I may not have a great chance to get it, but you’re going to have to fight me for this basketball.’ In addition, the other four guys ran right to his aid.”
Brown said the Crusaders may not have been able to win a slugfest like Saturday’s game back in January. Both teams shot poorly, with Holy Cross checking in at 36.2 percent and Lehigh under 30 percent. For a stretch during the season, the Crusaders seemed to let offensive struggles affect the defense, but they didn’t on Saturday.
The Crusaders need to make a run late in the season without a couple of key cogs. Reserve forward Mitchell Hahn has a finger broken in a couple of places, and surgery is ahead. That hurts depth up front, but they can manage since most teams in the league aren’t loaded with size and Matt Husek helped out nicely on Saturday with three boards and two blocked shots in just five minutes. The one that really hurts is Anthony Thompson, who tore the labrum on his left arm early in the season and bravely played through it until recently. However, it got to the point where it affected his high-energy game, and surgery is ahead for him.
In his place on Saturday, De’Vaughn Reid came up big, and in other roles, players like Morgan, Robert Champion and Taylor Abt came through. A couple of them have started games in their career, so this isn’t entirely new for them, and that may help.
“Everybody is ready to play, ready to go,” said Brown when asked about the great play of his bench on Saturday. “We need contributions from everybody. It’s great because it’s four or five guys doing it. We need to play ten.”
The Patriot League is a jumbled mess as far as the standings go. While Holy Cross is in a four-way tie for sixth place, they are just four games out of first with four games left and two games behind third-place Lehigh. They could still jump into a high enough seed to host a tournament game. It will be tough, with three of the final four games being on the road, but they have proven they can win against the best as they have knocked off Bucknell, Colgate and Lehigh along the way.
“We still control what happens to us,” said Brown. “The way the league is so jumbled, whoever starts to play well down the stretch could make a jump that you wouldn’t have thought they could make two weeks ago. It’s great just to know you have a chance.”
That’s certainly one more reason for him to be fired up at this point.