For most of the season, Holy Cross men’s basketball has been slogging through a very dark, very long tunnel, but head coach Milan Brown has refused to stop believing that there is light at the end of it.
After opening the year by shocking then-25th ranked Harvard with a smothering, high pressure backcourt defense, Brown’s Crusaders had the look of a league champion. They did nothing to dispel it through their next four games, going 3-1 after the Harvard win, 74-57 stomping of eventual America East regular season champion Albany, with their lone loss coming on the road at Syracuse.
But then Holy Cross hit a wall, losing nine of their next 11, including five of their first six Patriot League contests, essentially burying the Crusaders in the conference standings before they had even reached the halfway mark in conference play. Even after righting the ship and finishing out the season going 7-5, the Crusaders still found themselves as the eighth seed in the conference tournament (thanks to a three-way tie for sixth-place and the subsequent tie-breakers) facing off against ninth-seed Loyola (Maryland) on Tuesday night.
But Brown is confident heading into what is essentially a play-in game, feeling his team is peaking at the right time after ending the season with back-to-back wins in the form of a 63-60 victory over Loyola and a 77-70 road win at BU.
“The way we break up our season, the non-conference is the first season, Patriot League is the second season, and we’re getting ready for the third,” said Brown about how his team approached their final regular season Patriot League contest. “We’ve been talking about getting some momentum for the last month so I think that was more of a focus.”
According to Brown, the win over BU, powered by senior forward Malcolm Miller’s 30-point explosion and a team-wide 9-of-10 second half shooting performance from downtown, was particularly encouraging, especially because the Terriers were still fighting for seeding while Holy Cross was already locked in to the eighth seed.
“Obviously we’re really excited to get the win,” said Brown about the victory. “Understanding that the playoff implications were already set, it was great to see the guys come out ready to play.”
Brown saw the Crusaders’ performance as a microcosm of their refusal to give up on the season despite disappointing losses and mounting obstacles.
“I think our culture is set enough now that we’ll always compete,” said Brown. “We could be in first or tenth but we’ll compete for sure.”
One of the Crusaders’ biggest obstacles was the loss of point guard Anthony Thompson to season-ending shoulder surgery in February, which gave way to one of the team’s biggest boosts in form of resurgent bench play.
“They’ve been coming along for sure,” said Brown of his bench, which has gotten a shot of energy from sophomore Robert Champion, senior walk-on guard De’Vaughn Reid and high-flying former starting wing Eric Green.
“De’Vaughn helping us out with Anthony being down, Rob stepping up, Eric Green, they’ve really embraced that,” said Brown of his bench. “What’s happening now is they’re not only playing hard like they’ve always done, we’re getting production that shows up in the stat sheet.”
Champion was especially big on Saturday, scoring 16 points on 6-of-7 shooting in 22 minutes off the bench.
Champion’s ability to stretch the floor has been especially big for the Crusaders, who had been one of the worst 3-point shooting team in the Patriot League. The 6’6” wing closed out the season drilling 10-of-14 shots from deep over his final four games, including a 16-point performance on 6-of-7 shooting, including 4-of-4 from deep, in the regular season finale.
But according to Brown, the Crusaders’ success doesn’t rest on their ability to knock down long-bombs, but rather having his entire team bring consistent, frenetic energy for every second they are on the court.
“I need everybody to play hard and compete, we do that,” said Brown. Later adding, “it’s great, in the way we play, we can’t [play] seven or eight people, and we have to play 10 or 11 because of the style we play.”
Eight-seed Holy Cross tips off against ninth seeded Loyola (Maryland) at 7 p.m. tonight at the Hart Center in Worcester.