The Holy Cross Crusaders took down the Southern University Jaguars, 59-55, in the West Region's No. 16 seed play-in game Wednesday night at University of Dayton Arena in Dayton, Ohio. Holy Cross withstood a second-half scoring surge from the Southwestern Athletic Conference champions to clinch a date with No. 1 seed Oregon on Friday.
The tournament win was Holy Cross' first since 1953, but it was significant beyond the simple reason that it snapped a decadeslong drought, per ESPN Stats & Info:
ESPN Stats & Info @ESPNStatsInfo
Holy Cross def. Southern 59-55 to advance to the Round of 64 The Crusaders are the 3rd team with 19+ losses to win a tourney game3/17/2016, 12:45:11 AM
And according to CBS Sports' Jon Solomon, the Patriot League champion Crusaders have now ripped off five straight wins away from home after going 5-13 in conference play and 10-19 during the regular season.
In a back-and-forth affair that featured several ties and lead changes throughout the final five minutes of regulation, Holy Cross used a three-pointer from Robert Champion with 56 seconds remaining to survive and advance after squandering a 12-point first-half lead.
Southern struck back with a three of its own 32 seconds later to trim the Crusaders' lead to two, but a pair of free throws from Champion sealed the deal and sent Holy Cross into the first round.
Although Holy Cross' offense stalled at times in the second half, Champion offered a smooth stroke and led the way behind 19 points on 6-of-8 shooting, including 3-of-5 from three.
With the result in hand, Holy Cross alum Bill Simmons of The Ringer heaped praise on Cross' leading scorer:
Bill Simmons @BillSimmons
ROBERT CHAMPION IS AN AMERICAN HERO3/17/2016, 12:44:23 AM
The Crusaders shot 9-of-25 from three overall, and that mark proved to be the difference. Southern didn't convert its first triple until there were two minutes, 34 seconds remaining in regulation, and it finished a paltry 3-of-20 from deep on the night.
Holy Cross jumped out to a 10-point lead within the first 10 minutes of action, thanks, in part, to a 1-3-1 zone that gave Southern fits.
As the Jaguars looked to find open driving lanes and clean spot-up attempts from beyond the arc, the Crusaders consistently stifled their attempts and forced them into errant passes.
All told, Southern finished the first half with six turnovers and shot just 36.4 percent from the field, which represented the continuation of a positive trend for Holy Cross, according to Synergy Sports Technology on Twitter:
Synergy Sports Tech @SynergySST
A before and after of the #HolyCross defense since their shift to zone for the #PatriotLeague Tourney #MarchMadness https://t.co/xqgifRoPFs3/16/2016, 10:45:52 PM
And for a team that entered Wednesday's First Four clash ranked 259th in three-point field-goal percentage (32.7), per TeamRankings.com, the Crusaders looked awfully comfortable from beyond the arc early. By the time the first half drew to a close, Holy Cross had drilled four of 11 threes and owned a five-point lead.
Sports Illustrated's Seth Davis pointed to the Crusaders' throwback tactics as a reason for Southern's inability to execute right out of the chute:
Seth Davis @SethDavisHoops
Holy Cross is straight up uncoventional. Princeton offense, 1-3-1 defense. Hard to prep for!3/16/2016, 11:09:00 PM
However, time served the Jaguars well.
After closing the first half with a flurry of buckets, Southern opened the second frame on a 7-1 run to take the lead as it stopped trying to attack the Crusaders defense from the top and shifted ball movement toward the wings and baseline, as NCAA March Madness on Twitter documented:
NCAA March Madness @marchmadness
RODGERS! #FirstFour #MarchMadness https://t.co/3po5vJw0Wj3/16/2016, 11:55:34 PM
Southern had a real chance to shut the door and stop Holy Cross' improbable run, but inefficiencies from beyond the arc ultimately doomed a Jaguars team that shot just 39.3 percent from the field.
Thanks to the Jaguars' inability to hit open attempts from three-point land, the Crusaders will travel to Spokane, Washington, for a first-round showdown with the Oregon Ducks, who are entering the NCAA tournament playing their best ball of the season.
Not only are the Ducks on an eight-game winning streak that dates back to Feb. 20, but they just squashed Utah, 88-57, in the Pac-12 title game. Factor in an offense that ranks fifth nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency, per KenPom.com, and Oregon should be considered a heavy favorite to clinch a spot in the second round.
The Crusaders have defied odds throughout the past few weeks, but keeping their season alive will require a performance of historic proportions against one of the country's most well-rounded teams.
According to the Detroit Free Press' Mark Snyder, Holy Cross' head coach is getting superstitious in advance of his team's meeting with Oregon:
Mark Snyder @Mark__Snyder
Holy Cross coach Bill Carmody said after the game he doesn't want to jinx anything so he's wearing the same clothes in Spokane.3/17/2016, 1:27:38 AM
"I think it's fantastic," head coach Bill Carmody said of the win, according to the Associated Press (via ESPN.com). "It's everything we're trying to do at Holy Cross. We're trying to jump-start the program because we realize what an athletic program can do for a school. It's a great first step."
"We're just enjoying this right now," Champion added, per the Associated Press. "We're going to hop on a plane and go to Spokane. We're just enjoying it and going for the ride."
"We lost the game on small things," Southern's Christopher Hyder said, per WWL-TV's Doug Mouton. "They hit two big threes -- that were our mistakes, and that cost us the game."
"Although I'm disappointed, this group went far and beyond where we thought we would be at this time," Southern head coach Roman Banks added, per Mouton.