Making history: Bill Carmody and his Holy Cross squad won their first NCAA tournament game since 1953.
DAYTON, OHIO — Bill Carmody waited, patiently, without fuss or protest or much of a look on his face at all. When the final horn had sounded on his Holy Cross’s 59–55 win over Southern, earning it the right to move on as a No. 16 seed in the West Regional’s First Round, he had shaken the opponents’ hands and then high-fived assistant coach Freddie Owens. He lingered in the open court as his players exchanged excitement with the school’s pep band, letting out four or five small claps to himself. He wandered to the scorer’s table and back, then chatted with a team communications staffer. By the time he headed toward the tunnel to the locker room, a stream of Tulsa players was jogging out to commence their warmups for the following game. Carmody stood by until they passed, then stood by when still more stragglers followed. Eighteen years had passed since he last walked off the court an NCAA tournament game winner, when he had led fifth-seeded Princeton to victory over UNLV in 1998. Another minute or two couldn’t hurt.
Since that game, he had spent 13 years at Northwestern, unable to earn the Big Ten school its first-ever NCAA tournament bid and instead came up only with four NITs. He was fired three years ago to the day of Wednesday’s win, then spent part of two years tutoring grade-schoolers in Asbury Park, N.J., and five weeks living out of a Trumbull, Conn., hotel consulting his former player Sydney Johnson, now the coach at Fairfield. Until Holy Cross athletic director Nathan Pine called him last spring, the 64-year-old Carmody was unsure if he would ever coach again. He took over a Crusaders program predicted to finish seventh in the Patriot League’s preseason poll last October. Instead it finished ninth, ending the regular season with five straight losses. It has not lost since. Its current five-game winning streak accounts for more than a third of the team’s season total and makes for one of March’s most improbable stories.
And in a hallway outside the Crusaders’ locker room, when asked how he felt about winning in this tournament once again, Carmody said he felt great. Then he continued: “I really didn’t help them too much,” he said. “I really didn’t do a good job coaching. I was just like, eh. They were lethargic at times, a little sloppy with the ball. I didn’t know what to tell them, to tell the truth. I told the guys that during a timeout. I said, ‘Hey, I can’t help you. You guys gotta do something.’ So there was no great speech or anything like that. But in the end they came through.’” Self-effacement aside, it read like a summary of this Holy Cross season. It was flat at times. It was head-scratching. Then, things changed.
The Crusaders did not win consecutive games in January or February, nor any road games in conference play. They went into the Patriot League tournament 10–19. “We had ups and downs,” Carmody said. “Mostly downs.” There were kinks installing his deliberate, cut-heavy Princeton offense. The players took slowly to his 1-3-1 zone. Internally, dysfunction brewed.
“A lot of it was just not having confidence in one another,” said freshman Karl Charles. “It was nothing big, not fist fights or anything like that. We were just frustrated when we were taking losses and everything seemed to be going bad.”
Instead they patched things up in times for a run not even they saw coming, nor can they fully explain. Senior Eric Green, who returned as a reserve in mid-January from ACL surgery last spring, was shifted into the starting lineup. Carmody committed fully to the 1-3-1. (Asked why, Carmody explained, “Well, the other stuff wasn’t working.”) He stuck with it even when Loyola Maryland hit 10 first-half threes in the Crusaders’ first conference tournament game, then won as the Greyhounds missed 11 of their next 14. In the next round against Bucknell, junior Robert Champion grabbed an offensive rebound and hit an off-balance turnaround three from the corner to force a second overtime, in which Holy Cross won again. Two games later, in the Patriot League final, Lehigh had four chances in the final 20 seconds at a game-tying three, but missed them all. “A little luck is involved,” Charles said with a smile, “but we’re just playing for each other.”
For the first 20 minutes against Southern, Holy Cross needed little in the way of breaks. Its zone flummoxed the Jaguars, who idly passed the ball around the perimeter and failed to attack gaps along the baseline. Even after a short rally to close the half, Southern went into the break trailing 27–22, having shot just 36.4% from the field and missed all seven of their three-point tries. “I think the short turnaround, especially, to prepare for that is pretty hard, the way that they play it,” Southern coach Roman Banks said of the Holy Cross zone. “They rotate a little differently.”
In the second half the Crusaders clanked shot after shot, watching their lead first evaporate and then invert. “We hit a lull,” said Malachi Alexander, a versatile 6' 7" forward who finished with seven points, eight rebounds and eight assists. “They were being really aggressive, getting up in us. That made us uncomfortable. But we stuck with it. People stepped up.”
Among them was Charles, who had picked up his fourth foul with more than 14 minutes to play. He was re-inserted six minutes later, accompanied by simple directions: Make shots, and don’t foul. He followed the latter so that he could do the former, hitting a three from the left wing to put Holy Cross ahead 48–46 with three minutes left. The teams traded buckets until the game was knotted entering its final minute.
Then it was time for Champion, the hero from the Bucknell win, to hit another theatric three, breaking the tie with 57 seconds on the clock and jogging back up court, arms spread wide, with three fingers held aloft on each hand. Forty-three seconds later he was at the free throw line, Holy Cross leading by two, with a chance to essentially ice the game. “You feel a little bit of pressure, but we work on that stuff,” said Champion, who scored a game-high 19 points. “You gotta trust your work.”
He made both, sealing a 59–55 win. For this the Crusaders are rewarded with a meeting against the Pac-12’s regular season and tournament champions, Oregon, a collection of athletic wings that features the tournament’s pre-eminent shot-blocker (Chris Boucher) and one of the nation’s hottest freshmen (former top-50 guard Tyler Dorsey, who is averaging 19.6 points per game in March). Whatever a 16 seed’s momentum, it has never carried one farther than making a No. 1 sweat.
But that was a matter for Friday. On Wednesday the Crusaders preferred basking in an unlikely glow. “This is like the greatest thing possible for a school like this,” said senior Cullen Hamilton. “People say it might just be a play-in game, but we can say that we won a game in the tournament. That’s a big deal.”
There was a time when it wasn’t. Holy Cross, featuring a freshman named Bob Cousy, won the national title in 1947. A year later it returned to the Final Four, then made the Elite Eight again in 1950 and ’53, the second of which had also been the year of the program’s most recent NCAA tournament win. Even the young Crusaders are at least familiar with the school’s basketball history: Togo Palazzi frequents their practices, and a statue of Cousy stands outside the Hart Recreation Center on campus. Still the gap between victories seemed to amaze them.
“That’s a long time—my parents weren’t even born,” said Charles. “It’s nice to make history.”