DAYTON, Ohio — During warm-ups before Wednesday night’s game, Holy Cross players wore brand-new, purple “Made in March” shirts.
Two hours later, the slogan was even more fitting. The Crusaders made history in March again, this time with their first NCAA Tournament win in 63 years, a 59-55 victory over Southern University.
The Crusaders earned a trip to Spokane, Wash., to play top-seeded Oregon in the first round on Friday.
“It’s fantastic,” said Holy Cross coach Bill Carmody. “I think it’s everything we are trying to do at Holy Cross. We’re trying to jump-start this program because we recognize what an athletic program can do for a school. And this is a real great first step.”
After Holy Cross won in double OT against Bucknell in the quarterfinals and on the last possession against Lehigh in the final of the Patriot League Tournament, Wednesday’s game again came down to the last minute.
With 55 seconds left and the score tied at 52, Robert Champion hit a perfectly set up 3-pointer to put the Crusaders ahead.
“It’s a dream come true,” Champion said. “Everybody dreams of making that shot. But that three was set up way before I even took it. Malachi [Alexander] made a great play to get me open. It was just a practice shot.”
Two free throws extended the Crusaders’ lead to 5, but Adrian Rodgers answered with a quick three to make the score 57-55 with 23 seconds left.
Champion added two free throws in the last 14 seconds to seal the win.
The close finish was unexpected, given that the Crusaders (15-19) controlled the first 15 minutes of the game. Southern (22-13) was confused by Holy Cross’s 1-3-1 zone as the Jaguars started 3 of 13 from the field, committed four turnovers in the first seven minutes, and managed just 22 points before halftime. The Jaguars were 0 for 7 from 3-point range in the first half and 3 for 20 for the game.
“Early on, we settled for shots,” Southern coach Roman Banks said. “And then when we weren’t able to throw the ball into our bigs, we had to go all perimeter. You’d like to try to get some baskets where they have to pay close attention to the inside, but that wasn’t the case.”
Meanwhile, Holy Cross built a 12-4 lead and easily worked around Southern’s defense, shooting 50 percent from the field before halftime to build a 12-point lead.
Late in the half, though, Holy Cross started to unravel. It committed a shot-clock violation, lost the ball on a steal, and had two shots tipped on consecutive possessions as Southern went on a 9-2 run. Holy Cross went into halftime up by just 5 at 27-22.
After halftime, the rest of the Crusaders’ lead quickly disappeared. Southern took its first lead, 29-28, on a jumper by Rodgers, who had a team-high 14 points. The Crusaders committed five more turnovers in the next five minutes, mainly on sloppy passes. Southern finished with 19 points off 14 Holy Cross turnovers.
“It’s funny because usually some teams hit a few early on and then they wear down,” Carmody said. “But these guys, it was just the opposite. They seemed like they heated up. They were scoring inside on us, a lot of second shots, throwing the ball up, trying stuff and collapsing us a little bit.”
The teams continued to trade leads for the rest of the second half, with the Crusaders doing just enough to come away with the win.
Champion led Holy Cross with 19 points. Anthony Thompson added 12.
Friday’s game against Oregon will be the second 1 seed vs. 16 seed NCAA Tournament matchup in Holy Cross history. In 2001, the Crusaders led No. 1 seed Kansas, 49-48, midway through the second half before losing, 70-59.
Carmody joked in the postgame news conference that he would wear the same suit the rest of the weekend to help keep the luck alive. But even with the matchup against Oregon looming, the Crusaders weren’t yet talking about what was ahead.
“I think we’re still going to try to take it one step at a time,” Champion said. “Obviously, we know Oregon is going to be the team we play in Spokane . . . But I think we’re just taking it one step at a time and enjoying the ride.”