Defense does it for Crusaders

(Originally posted: Sunday, 5:23 p.m.)

Special to The Telegram&Gazette

BETHLEHEM, Pa. – They don’t show up in the official box score. The NCAA doesn’t track them in its weekly statistical leaders’ board. But to Holy Cross men’s basketball coach, deflections are a tell-tale indicator of how well his team is playing defense. So important that one of the Crusaders assistant coach keeps a running tab of deflections on the bench.

Willard didn’t show anybody that tally sheet after the Crusaders’ 58-56 win at Lehigh Sunday afternoon. But chances are, the last one on the list was circled in red, underlined, with a giant asterisk next to it.

It came with three second to go, with Lehigh trying to inbound the ball under its own basket after the Mountain Hawks had rallied from a 16-point second half deficit to give themselves as chance to win, or at least force overtime.

Naturally, it was Kevin Hamilton who got a hand on the pass. Hamilton, who ranks fourth in the nation in steals, deflected the ball to Keith Simmons, who lobbed it down the court and out of danger as the clock ran out on Lehigh’s hopes of pulling off an upset and into a four-way tie for first place atop the Patriot League.

The official play-by-play credited the steal to Simmons, who ended up with the loose ball. But make no mistake, it was Hamilton who made the big play.

“That deflection was huge at the end,” said Willard. “It’s something he does better than anybody I have ever coached. He has great instincts.

“It was a gutty deflection because we were dog-dead tired at the end,” added Willard.

It was also a fitting end to a defensive battle between two teams that rank among the nation’s leaders in several defensive categories. Holy Cross (15-5, 6-1 Patriot) came in having shot better than 50 percent from the field in its last six games. But against Lehigh (10-10, 4-3), it managed to connect on just 19 of the 48 shots it took (39.6 percent).

Lehigh shot slightly better, 40-percent, but between Holy Cross’ 32-28 rebounding edge and the fact the Crusaders forced two more turnovers (14) than they committed, the Crusaders had eight more tries than the Mountain Hawks, who were 16-for-40 from the floor.

It was enough of an edge to let Holy Cross outscore Lehigh by five points, 44-39, from the field, every point of that margin crucial in a game that saw Lehigh get to the foul line seven more times than the Crusaders.

It was that foul shooting, along with Lehigh’s defense, that made it close down the stretch after Holy Cross threatened to break the game open midway through the second half. After blowing a 10-point lead in the first half, then rallying for a 27-26 lead at the break, the Crusaders came out strong after the intermission, holding Lehigh to just a single bucket in the first 7:55 of the half. In the meantime, the Crusaders were busy scoring 17 points of their own to build a 44-28 lead.

Then the whistles started blowing. Without making a single field goal, Lehigh cut the margin in half while Holy Cross was busy picking up six fouls in a span of less than three minutes. When Keith Simmons picked up his third personal with 9:44 to play, it put Lehigh in the double bonus the rest of the way.

From there on out it was pretty much a free throw shooting contest. Holy Cross managed only two field goals the last 12:55 of the game. Lehigh was only slightly more effective, with four field goals in that stretch, including a pair of threes by Jose Olivero, who had five triples in the game and led all scorers with 24 points.

It was Olivero who finally got Lehigh even at 54-54 with 1:56 to play, hitting 2-of-3 at the line after Simmons fouled him as he attempted another trey. The missed free throw, one of 5 Olivero missed in 10 tries, proved to be bigger than any of the threes he made.

At the other end, HC freshman point guard Pat Doherty, who finished with 14 points, hit a pair from the stripe to give Holy Cross the lead again. And after Lehigh’s Jason Mgebross missed a 12-foot jumper that would have tied the game, Hamilton grabbed the carom with Lehigh’s Earl Nurse draped across his back in an effort to tip the ball free.

Hamilton made one of two free throws for a 57-54 lead.

Lehigh went for the tie on its next possession, but Mitch Gilfillan’s three-point try was off the mark with 1:00 left.

The Crusaders milked the clock on the ensuing possession, and had a chance to ice it when John Hurley went to the hole with the shot clock running out. But Hurley’s layup rolled off the rim, keeping Lehigh’s hopes alive.

After burning its final timeout, Lehigh was forced to settle for a Olivero layup that cut the HC lead to 57-56 with 16 seconds left after the Crusaders refused to give him an open look for a three that would have tied it.

Hamilton was immediately fouled on the inbounds play, and again he missed one of the two free throws to allow Lehigh’s hopes to stay alive. Those hopes were snuffed when Nate Lufkin came across the lane to block a shot by Gilfillan in the paint. The loose ball went out of bounds with three seconds left, setting the stage for Hamilton's deflection.

The win, coupled with Bucknell’s loss at Navy, puts the Crusaders alone atop the Patriot League standings at the end of the first half of conference play.

Holy Cross will start the second half of league play with a two-game weekend road trip at Navy and American, starting Friday in Annapolis.

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