DAYTON, Ohio – This is why March is March in the NCAA Tournament. If there weren’t stories like Holy Cross, someone would have to make them up.
First, the team that went 10-19 in the regular season and 0-9 on the road its conference, survived four consecutive road games -- three of them settled in the final minute -- to win the Patriot League tournament.
Wednesday, the program that hadn’t won an NCAA tournament game since the first spring of the Eisenhower administration -- 1953 -- found a way in another close one, beating Southern 59-55 in the First Four.
So now, the Crusaders are headed for Spokane to play No. 1 seed Oregon on Friday, and if anyone in the locker room truly believed two weeks ago they’d be making an all-night flight to the state of Washington on March 16 to play another NCAA tournament game, they should raise their hands.
"It’s a stretch," Malachi Alexander said. "But we knew we could make something special happen if we ever put 40 minutes together. Going into the playoffs, we said, 'We’re 0-0 like every other team."
"It feels amazing, to make history like this."
But really, 1953?
"I just found out after the game we hadn’t won a (tournament) game since ’53. That’s crazy. That’s a long time."
Or as Robert Champion said, after 19 points and the tie-breaking 3-pointer with 57 seconds left, "We knew coming in that we had not won an NCAA tournament game since whenever it’s been. But the main thing we want to do is to show people what we’re about."
Never mind that all the players were more than four decades away from being born the last time Holy Cross won in the NCAA tournament. Coach Bill Carmody, current age 64, was 15 months old.
He has been around the block a few times; four years at Princeton, and 13 at Northwestern, where he chased the breakthrough NCAA tournament bid for the Wildcats he never found.
Then they fired him.
This is his first season at Holy Cross, so the past weeks must certainly feel good.
"I think it means a ton to him," Champion said. "I think it means a ton to all of us."
Carmody stood in the hallway outside his locker room Wednesday night, trying to make some sense of it.
"I’m just really happy for them. I don’t know what else to say. It sounds sort of trite. We had an up and down season, mostly down. For them to come back and win five in a row . . . four of them came down to the last shot. There’s just a toughness about them I don’t think can be overemphasized.
"I see those smiles. I’ve got a stoic bunch of guys. They don’t talk. Some defensive coaches say you’ve got to talk on defense. I don’t even know what their voices sound like. But they’re smiling like this right now, so that makes me feel good."
What happened the past fortnight? The Crusaders mention the development of the 1-3-1 zone, the new-found ability to put together an entire game, the blossoming of confidence.
"People ask me all the time, are we surprised," Champion said. "I think toward the end of the season, even though we were losing, they were close games. We kind of told each other, man, if we change a few things here, a few things there and play a little harder, we can turn those losses into wins. I think it just took that one win in our conference tournament to show us we could win."
Wednesday was an example, as the Crusaders grabbed a 12-point lead, lost it all, then took the game back in the end. "There were times," Champion said "I think we could have caved."
Instead, they’re playing on, long past their expiration date. But here’s the thing. Carmody isn’t even sure they should be in the tournament. He is a proponent of the regular season champion getting the bid, and that would have been Bucknell. Holy Cross finished ninth.
"It’s really helped us publicity-wise, but I still think Bucknell should be here. I just think if you win for three months you should be going. If you want to have a conference tournament, great. Just flip it. We’ll take the NIT. That’s how I feel.
"We’re the beneficiary this year, but I don’t think it’s right. There’s something wrong in here," he said, pointing to his stomach.
Soon after, they were headed for the airport, with another game in 48 hours, three time zones away. Such is life for a First Four survivor. Moving travel plans along was Brendan Sullivan,
Holy Cross associate athletic director. The Crusaders had an 11:45 p.m. charter flight to Spokane. It would be a long night, but nobody was complaining. It feels nice in March to be a Cinderella story.
"We’ll get to the hotel about 5 o’clock in the morning our time," Sullivan said. "With a smile on our faces."