Holy Cross tops Lehigh for Patriot League title, NCAA berth
BETHLEHEM, Pa. (AP) Holy Cross players stuck strands of a basketball net in the back of their hats.
That's one superb souvenir to cap a monumental run.
Winless on the road in regular-season conference games, the Crusaders turned into Patriot League Tournament road warriors - and the path is extended all the way to the NCAA Tournament.
Malachi Alexander scored 26 points and Holy Cross sealed its stunning run to the Patriot League title and an NCAA Tournament berth with a 59-56 victory over Lehigh on Wednesday night.
The Crusaders are 14-19 and had lost all nine conference road games during the regular season. Once the tournament started, the Crusaders won at Loyola, beat top-seeded Bucknell, won at Army, then knocked off second-seeded Lehigh (17-15).
The Crusaders are in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2007.
Alexander made 6 of 7 3-pointers, more than enough for the ninth-seeded Crusaders to end Lehigh's school record-tying 11-game winning streak.
Holy Cross is the 25th team to ever make the NCAA Tournament with a losing record.
''They suffered through a lot and, at the end, they came through,'' coach Bill Carmody said.
Tim Kempton led Lehigh with 20 points and Kyle Leufroy had 13. The Mountain Hawks made only 8 of 26 3-pointers.
''It wasn't a question in our mind that we could make it to this point,'' Kempton said.
The Mountain Hawks fell behind big early and failed to make a sustainable run until late in the game. Jesse Chuku buried a 3 with 1:10 left that brought Lehigh within one and Kahron Ross kept it a one-point game with a pair of free throws that made it 57-56 with 33 seconds left.
The Crusaders held on from the free-throw line and made the tournament in Carmody's first season. Carmody failed to make the tournament in 13 seasons at Northwestern.
He didn't appear to be headed there this season, either, especially after Holy Cross lost five straight games headed into the tournament.
''You don't see that too often, that guys are able to come together with a new coach,'' Alexander said. ''That speaks to us and the faith we have in Coach that we were able to pull it off.''
The Crusaders straightened their season out in the conference tournament and became the lowest-seeded team to win the Patriot League.
''It's been a hard, hard year,'' Carmody said. ''When you're 5-13 or have 19 losses, that's tough on everybody. The people in Worcester, the Holy Cross alumnus. It's tough on the psyche.''
The hard times were forgotten as the Crusaders bounced around the court and set up a ladder to cut the nets.
Eric Green scored 13 points for the Crusaders and Holy Cross made 11 of 29 3-pointers.
Lehigh staggered through the first half, missing 6 of 7 3-pointers and shooting just 23 percent overall. Lehigh missed nine of its first 12 shots and that allowed Holy Cross to stretch its lead early to double digits.
Alexander hit his third 3 of the half to make it 25-11 and Robert Champion pointed and waved in jubilation toward a couple hundred vocal Holy Cross fans that made the 4-hour trip to Stabler Arena.
''There's some front-runners around here,'' Carmody said, smiling. ''We won three in a row, let's be honest.''
Green, who averaged 3.6 points in the regular season, scored nine points in the half and Alexander also had nine.
Down 11 at halftime, Lehigh started hitting 3s and scored 16 points in the first 8 minutes of the second half - or, two more than it scored at the break. Kempton had two three-point plays that brought Lehigh within four.
But Lehigh shot only 32 percent from the floor and did not attack the basket as effectively as it needed to win.
''We were out of sorts,'' Lehigh coach Brett Reed said. ''I don't think we were as assertive or as aggressive as we needed to be. It wasn't until our guards started penetrating that we were able to get more of the looks we wanted.''
Holy Cross: In the NCAA Tournament for the 13th time. ... No team lower than fourth had ever won the tournament.
Lehigh: Lehigh last made the tournament in 2012. The Mountain Hawks had not made the championship game since that season.
Holy Cross plays in the NCAA Tournament.
Lehigh waits for a hopeful NIT berth.