Byline: Chris A. Courogen
BETHLEHEM, Pa. - Trailing by six points early in the second half, its offense sputtering and its dream of hosting the Patriot League Tournament final in danger of turning into a nightmare bus ride for the title game, Holy Cross did what it does best yesterday afternoon - it played defense.
Holding Lehigh scoreless for a stretch of almost 13 minutes, the Crusaders rallied for a 62-50 win, clinching the regular-season league title and securing that coveted home-court advantage should it reach the only game that really matters in the one-bid conference.
Technically, the Crusaders (22-8 overall, 13-1 Patriot) share the regular-season crown with two-time defending champion Bucknell, which also finished 13-1 in league play. The teams split their regular-season series, a sign of just how important that home court might be in the final.
Holy Cross will have that edge if it makes it that far thanks to a better RPI rating than the Bison, the last in a series of tiebreakers used by the league to determine seedings for the tournament when teams tie in the standings. Headed into the Lehigh game, HC unofficially was ranked No. 69 in the RPI; Bucknell, which wrapped up its regular season with a win Saturday at Army, was No. 90.
Two minutes into the second half, it looked as though the RPI might not be a factor. Lehigh (12-18, 7-7) outplayed the Crusaders in the first half, though they only had a 32-30 lead to show for it at intermission thanks to some strong free-throw shooting late in the half that allowed Holy Cross to cut into the Mountain Hawks six-point lead. The Crusaders went 10 for 12 at the line in the first half, 6 of 8 in the last 4:34 of the period.
Credit sophomore forward Alex Vander Baan with helping Holy Cross stay in the game in the first half. He was 7 for 7 at the foul line, finishing the half with nine points en route to a 14-point night. Vander Baan's offensive contribution was huge in a half where Torey Thomas (who scored 12 of his game-high 21 points in the first half) was the only other Crusader who had much luck finding the bottom of the net.
With Holy Cross struggling on offense - they were 9 for 26 from the field (34.6 percent) in the first half - Lehigh opened the second half with two quick buckets to push its lead to 36-30.
That was before Holy Cross coach Ralph Willard called a timeout and gave the Crusaders a Reader's Digest version of the sermon he had just finished in the locker room during the...