An impressive defensive display in the second half gave the Crusaders a win over Lehigh Sunday, clinching the top seed for the playoffs.
By CHRIS A. COUROGEN
Trailing by six points early in the second half, its offense sputtering and its dream of hosting the Patriot League Tournament final in danger of turning into the prospect of a nightmare bus ride for the title game, Holy Cross did what it does best Sunday afternoon. It played defense.
Holding Lehigh scoreless for a stretch of almost 13 minutes, the Crusaders rallied for a 62-50 win, clinching the regular season league title and securing that coveted home court advantage should it reach the only game that really matters in the one-bid conference.
Technically, the Crusaders (22-8 overall, 13-1 Patriot) share the regular season crown with two-time defending champion Bucknell, which also finished 13-1 in league play. The two teams split their regular season series, a sign of just how important that home court might be in the final. Holy Cross will have that edge if it makes it that far thanks to a better RPI rating than the Bison, the last in a series of tiebreakers used by the league to determine seedings for the tournament when teams tie in the standings. Headed into the Lehigh game, HC unofficially was ranked No. 69 in the RPI; Bucknell, which wrapped its regular season with a win Saturday at Army was No. 90.
Two minutes into the second half, it looked as though the RPI might not be a factor. Lehigh (12-18, 7-7) outplayed the Crusaders in the first half, though they only had a 32-30 lead to show for it at the intermission thanks to some strong free throw shooting late in the half that allowed Holy Cross to cut into the Mountain Hawks 6-point lead. The Crusaders went 10 for 12 at the line in the first half, 6 of 8 in the last 4:34 of the period.
Credit sophomore forward Alex Vander Baan with helping Holy Cross stay in the game in the first half. Vander Baan was 7 for 7 at the foul line, finishing the half with 9 points en route to a 14-point night. Vander Baan's offensive contribution was huge in a half where Torey Thomas (12 of his game-high 21 points in the first half) was the only other Crusader who had much luck finding the bottom of the net.
With Holy Cross struggling on offense -- they were 9 for 26 from the field (34.6 percent) in the first half -- it looked like a brewing upset when Lehigh opened the second half with two quick buckets to push their lead to 36-30.
That was before Holy Cross coach Ralph Willard called a timeout and gave the Crusaders a readers digest version of the sermon he had just finished in the locker room during the break, when he preached from the book of defensive intensity.
"It was a re-emphasis; ringing their bell if you will. I wanted to get their attention," Willard said.
Willard was not bothered by Holy Cross' offense, which missed its first two shots of the half after going 9 for 26 (34.6 percent) in the first half. That would fix itself once the defense, which created only three Lehigh turnovers in the first half, was back on form.
"We only had six deflections at halftime. There wasn't a whole lot else to talk about," said Willard, who gauges his team's defensive effort by that measure. Holy Cross sets a goal of 40 deflections each game.
If you ask Willard, he will tell you his team's 28 second half deflections (and 8 turnovers) were a far more telling indicator than the fact that the Crusaders held Lehigh's leading scorer, to just a pair of free throws in the second half after he had scored 11 points in the first.
"We didn't do a good job on him the first half. We refocused on him at the half," said Holy Cross senior Keith Simmons.
"I told the guys 'we're not going to win this game unless we really get up, get in his grill and have a lot of help. That was a point of emphasis," Willra dsaid.
"They turned up their pressure and intensity. We did not respond," said Olivero.
Holy Cross picked up its intensity on the glass, too. In the first half, HC held a slim 20-17 edge in rebounding. By the end of teh game, that margin swelled to 39-28, with 14 of Holy Cross' rebounds coming on the offensive glass.
"We would get the defensive stops we needed, but we couldn't get the ball," Lehigh coach Billy Taylor said.
Truth be told, HC's offense did not exactly catch fire. It took holding Lehigh scoreless for nearly 4 minutes to erase the 6-point deficit and the Crusaders lead was only 42-36 when Lehigh's scoreless drought hit the 10-minute mark. But the way HC played defense in the second half, the offense could take its time. By the time Lehigh finally scored, HC's lead was up to 12 and the game was all but in the books.
It didn't hurt any that Keith Simmons got his game going after the intermission. The league's leading scorer, averaging 17.7 points per game, scored 10 of his 14 points after the break. Simmons also had 10 rebounds for his third double-double of the season.
"Coach told me I was standing around and watching too much. He told me I had to be more aggressive," Simmons said.
It also helped that Tim Clifford stayed out of foul trouble. Lehigh scored 17 of its 32 first half points in the 7:36 span at the end of the half when Clifford, the league's leading shot blocker, was on the bench after picking up two quick fouls. In the second half, with Clifford on the floor the entire 20 minutes, the Mountain Hawks found the door to the middle closed and the pressure on the perimeter intensified by HC guards knowing their 6-10 eraser was waiting to fix any mistakes should their man beat them off the dribble. Clifford finished with 5 blocks, 3 in the second half, and added 9 points and 5 rebounds.
Clifford also held Lehigh's senior center, Jason Mgebroff, to 4 points and 3 boards in his first start since returning to action after missing over two months with a stress fracture in his leg. Lehigh's backup center, Phil Anderson, did manage 12 points on 5 of 6 shooting, but 10 of those points came in the last 5:57, with the outcome all but determined.
Freshman Zahir Carrington added 11 points for Lehigh, 9 in the first half -- 5 of those while Clifford was sitting.
Holy Cross will open the postseason tournament Wednesday night in the Hart Center against last-place Lafayette. A win in that one would bring the winner of the Colgate at American first round game to town on Sunday for the semifinals. The final is set for March 9 -- in Worcester if HC wins its first two.
Box score | Postgame audio (Willard, Simmons, Taylor, Neptune and Olivero) | Notebook | Express-Times
Labels: games, HC, Leh