Three upsets of substantial proportions propelled tiny Holy Cross to the Patriot League Tournament final on Wednesday. The Crusaders' 59-56 win over Lehigh in that game earned them their first NCAA Tournament berth since 2007.
Junior forward Malachi Alexander scored 26 points and grabbed nine rebounds for Holy Cross in the victory, and the Crusaders held the Mountain Hawks to just 14 first-half points. That built a lead they would not relinquish in the second half, despite Lehigh closing to within a point in the final minute and missing four threes on its final possession.
The win earns the program's first Patriot League title under Bill Carmody, and sixth overall, which leads the conference.
The deck was stacked against Holy Cross on Wednesday, and throughout the Patriot League Tournament. Lehigh entered the competition on a nine-game winning streak that dated to the first game of February, and entered the final on an 11-game winning streak. Thanks to the league's tournament format allowing higher seeds to host, the Mountain Hawks were also playing on their home court in Pennsylvania, and Holy Cross was playing in its fourth consecutive do-or-die road game.
It didn't matter, just like the five-game losing streak Holy Cross entered the Patriot League Tournament with didn't matter, and just like the Crusaders' 0-9 road record in league play in the regular season didn't matter. They marched through the league's No. 8, No. 1, No. 4, and No. 2 seeds in the tournament — the second-toughest road possible for a Patriot League squad — and claimed maybe the season's unlikeliest NCAA Tournament berth.
Holy Cross is almost certainly destined for Dayton's First Four as a No. 16 seed, given that only its improbable tournament run lifted the Crusaders out of the 300s in KenPom.
Conquering long odds is suddenly one of their strengths, though.