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2016 NCAA Tournament First Four Recap: Holy Cross slows Southern to a crawl to advance

Holy Cross used its not-so-secret weapon to perfection to earn its first NCAA Tournament win in more than 50 years.

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

In 1989, there was this little school named Princeton who earned a No. 16 seed into the NCAA Tournament, and they faced off against a Goliath of the day, Georgetown. For 40 minutes, the Tigers forced Georgetown into their style, a slow-down game highlighted by the Princeton offense and tough defense.

To this day, that is the closest that any No. 16 seed has come to upsetting a No. 1.

This isn't to say that Holy Cross will duplicate that feat Friday when they stare down Oregon and its high-powered offense. But it does have a little bit to say about the way in which the Crusaders were able to win its first NCAA Tournament game in more than 50 years when they defeated Southern, 59-55.

The biggest story of this week has been Holy Cross' 1-3-1 defense. Even we gave word play to the effect that this was going to tilt the game in favor of the Crusaders, no matter what the stats said, or what all of the computer models predicted.

The fact that couldn't be plugged into a computer model was that Southern had zero game experience against the 1-3-1. No team worth its salt in the SWAC is going to play a 1-3-1 defense; they would be laughed out of the gym if they tried.

And so it was that when the purple machine matched up on that first offensive possession by the Jaguars, it resulted in a turnover. The next one was a missed 3-pointer, and then another. Before the under-16 timeout at 13:43 in the first half, Holy Cross had slowly built a 12-4 lead, and caused Southern to cough the ball up four times. When the Jaguars could get shots, they went just 2-for-6 from the floor.

By then it was almost too late; Holy Cross had gained the advantage, in much the same way that Princeton had gained the advantage against the taller and more powerful Hoyas back in 1989.

Maybe it is fitting that the architect of this defense began his head coaching career sitting on the bench at Princeton, where he led the Tigers to two NCAA Tournaments, and a win over UNLV in 1998.

He didn't have quite the same success that the powers that be had hoped he would when he brought that style to Northwestern, but he came close multiple times, and made the program relevant in the Big Ten, something that no one would have ever expected.

And that was what was hoped for when he was hired at Holy Cross. This was a power in the Patriot League as recently as 10 years ago, and they needed something to get them there again. That it happened in the first year under Carmody was more than anyone could expect.

Yet here this team is, the 9th place finisher in the Patriot League, winners of five straight on the road. And more importantly winners of an NCAA Tournament game.

They will be able to thank Robert Champion for that. In the final minute, Champion sank a 3-pointer after Southern had struggled back to tie the game at 52. A few seconds later, he calmly sank two free throws that pushed the Crusaders to 59 points and essentially sealed the game.

And in classic Patriot League style, his entire interview after the game, when everyone wanted him to play the role of the hero for Holy Cross, he gave more praise to the team he just defeated. This wasn't about him, or Holy Cross. This was about how well Southern had played, and how they had pushed the Crusaders to play better.

Still Champion was the man that drove home this win, with 19 points, including a 3-for-5 performance behind the 3-point line, to go with four rebounds.

Now standing between Holy Cross and immortality are the Ducks, a team that has a much better offense and defense than Southern. But Holy Cross still has that secret weapon of the 1-3-1 defense, and maybe, if the stars are aligned right, that will give the edge long enough to have everyone in the arena starting to chant for the boys in purple.

Likely that won't be the case, but nothing is going to take away this night from Holy Cross, a team with 19 losses that defied the very long odds to be on this stage, and still managed to come away with a victory.