Journey To The Big Dance

July 25, 2007

By John Gearan
Holy Cross Magazine

No season in the proud history of Holy Cross basketball has better defined the true Crusader spirit.

Toss out the numbers, the records, the awards and cold stats, and listen to the stories of the journey taken by the men's and women's teams to the NCAA Tournament.

Never have Holy Cross players sacrificed more to reach their goals. Never have they played with more passion for their college and for the game they love. Never have their fans from the student body, alumni and community cheered louder and elevated performances higher. Never have the men and women supported each other more. Never have coaches and players been closer--especially during the tough times.

Rewind to March.

With ESPN cameras broadcasting the Holy Cross-Bucknell rumpus for the Patriot League championship, suddenly there appeared a Crusader in full regalia. He climbed a wobbly step ladder as if he were conquering some craggy mountaintop. He brandished his sword, exhorting the frantic crowd. Then he yanked off his helmet to reveal the punch line: the Crusader was none other than Bill Gibbons, a warrior finishing up his 25th campaign as the women's coach.

The joint rocked. The Gibbons girls surrounded the court, dancing about as card-carrying cheerleaders and flashing the message: B-E-A-T B-U-C-K-N-E-L-L. The huddled men glanced over at their already-NCAA-bound counterparts. Pumped up, Ralph Willard's guys responded by going on an inspired 21-4 spurt.

The Holy Cross women explained away their antics as just payback. For two nights earlier, the men had arrived at the Hart Center with purple-painted faces and T-shirts with the women's team photo on them. "At first, we just thought they were a bunch of crazies and didn't realize they were the men's team," recalls tri-captain Brittany Keil. "They're our pals, and we wanted to return the favor."

Later in the men's game, the Crusader ladies had a little extra tit-for-tat surprise. They lined up courtside, pulled up their tops and bared painted midsections which read B-E-A-T B-U-C-K-N-E-L-L. Which the men did gladly.

*****

The roommates knew they would have to carry the Crusaders if their dreams of making the NCAA Tournament would finally be realized. Torey Thomas and Keith Simmons, the team captains and the two best players in the Patriot League, would accept no alibis. True, Thomas had endured a rigorous off-season rehab program after knee surgery. And his scoring sidekick Simmons had experienced chronic cramping in his legs that could sideline him at any critical moment. Yet they vowed to each other, to their coach and teammates, nothing would thwart their NCAA quest.

"There was a lot of pressure on Torey and Keith," explains Willard about his dynamic duo, whose teams had an 84-41 record in four seasons. "They could handle it. They are natural leaders. Well-liked, well-rounded and popular on campus, Torey and Keith were magnets for fan support."

With five wins out of the gate, the men developed an ardent following early. They didn't disappoint, never losing in the Hart Center while averaging 3,000 fans, even selling out the Patriot League semifinal (vs. American) and final (vs. Bucknell) during vacation week.

"We survived a brutal 11-game, 38-day stretch away from the Hart Center, and that made us more resilient," Willard notes.

With 6-foot-10-inch, 270-pound center Tim Clifford fulfilling his promise, Thomas, Simmons and company nearly ran the table (13-1) in the Patriot League. While hosting the league tournament, the Crusaders glided by Lafayette, then faced two battles royal: American, which had taken the Crusaders into overtime in January; and co-Patriot League champ Bucknell, which had vanquished the Crusaders, 48-45, a month earlier.

Thomas took over the American contest, his hustle and flow spurring a sensational comeback that Simmons finished with a winning basket -- at 4.8 seconds remaining. The peripatetic Thomas, a 5-foot-9-inch jitterbug, had nine rebounds, six assists, four steals and 16 points.

During the on-court celebration, Thomas found his way through the crowd and into the embrace of Holy Cross All-American Togo Palazzi. "I love the great tradition here," says Thomas. "Having a Hall of Famer like Togo respect my game means a lot. He has treated me like one of his sons and taught me a lot."

Against Bucknell, Ralph Willard's defense lived up to its national reputation. Over one 9:08 stretch, the Crusaders held the Bison without a field goal as Clifford had six blocks in the first half.

Somehow a 46-27 lead didn't seem safe enough against Bucknell, so well-coached by Pat Flannery. Some college die-hards remained edgy. Paul "Willis" Hart, became so unnerved, he left his comfy seat to pace in the lobby. A few minutes later, when Bucknell went on a 13-0 comeback spree, Hart's daughter Meghan, joined him.

This time, however, Thomas was around for the second half (he had injured his knee in the 2006 championship encounter against Bucknell). Thomas capped his season-high performance (28) with a crucial three-pointer, putting the Crusaders up seven for keeps.

Simmons won the MVP trophy. Thomas and Clifford joined him on the all-tourney team. Willard, voted Patriot League Coach of the Year, captured his fourth tourney title. And the 25-8 Crusaders were on their way to the NCAAs where Holy Cross loves to scare beastie boys from places like Kansas, Kentucky and Marquette. Their foe: the 27-6 Southern Illinois University -- nicknamed the Salukis after an ancient Egyptian canine that looks like a greyhound with a goatee.

*****

The Lady Crusaders may have had a season of broken bones, but not broken dreams. They never gave up on themselves.

Already struggling at 3-6, the women's team suffered a crippling blow as Laura Alosi, its star guard, tore up her knee in game 10 against Maine. So, too, did Jessica Pearson, her excellent understudy.

Without guards to spearhead the attack, the rest of the season seemed, well, pointless.

"Everyone counted us out," acknowledges Gibbons. Yet the Gibbons girls had no quit in them. Relax, have fun and play hard, became their motto.

Brittany Keil, hobbled after four knee operations, refused to let her sparkling career end with a whimper. She had to curb her enthusiasm, curtail her practice time and limit warm-ups. She started every game with a limp. She played with pain, knowing her career could end without notice. During one particularly dark moment, Keil wanted to quit. Amanda Wolf, the team trainer, pulled her aside and said, "Brit, we need your leadership!"

The Crusaders had other sources of inspiration.

Ashley Brennan-McBride is a 6-foot-5-inch Canadian. She arrived at Holy Cross highly-touted, expecting to play a lot. She mostly sat. She did not sulk. Her mother, Frances, a huge Crusader fan, died at the end of Ashley's second year. She grieved. Her teammates, her coach and his wife, Lisa, provided her with solace, comfort and support. Chosen as a tri-captain, Ashley became the soul of the team, its constant encouragement, its emotional epicenter.

Kaitlin Foley, a 6-foot-4-inch tri-captain, emerged as the heart of the Crusaders offense and defense. When the chips were down, Foley would rise to occasion and prove again and again why she would be named first-team all-league center. Ashley McLaughlin became a steady contributor and guards Bethany O'Dell and Briana McFadden showed amazing poise. "Once we got it together, we never stopped believing," remarks Keil.

The team finished the regular season with a shaky 15-17 record. However, down in Annapolis, Md., upsets shook the tournament, bouncing favorites Bucknell (by Colgate) and Army (by Lehigh). The Crusaders breezed by Lafayette and now faced Lehigh, which had defeated them eight days earlier.

The Crusaders trailed Lehigh by two points with 10 seconds left. Here Lehigh miscalculated -- as it had three fouls to give before Holy Cross would be awarded a free throw. Lehigh committed its third give-away foul a shade too early, with five ticks remaining. The Crusaders called a time out to set up a play for the always-clutch Foley, who promptly tossed in a neat hook shot. In overtime, Keil cashed in on two big free throws to provide the college with the victory and a trip home to play American in the final.

The Hart Center is a magic place for the women's team. In 20 playoff games there, the Lady Crusaders had lost only once. The packed house included the painted men's team and "The Sisterhood" -- 25 former players sitting together. The seniors provided the leadership as Foley pulled down a career-high 15 rebounds and Keil 10. Two first-year players supplied the punch. Bethany O'Dell, the tourney MVP, poured in 20, while Briana McFadden, a cool customer known as "Nana," scored 14, dished out six assists and controlled the tempo.

The Cinderella Crusaders traipsed off to the NCAA Ball.

*****

Only 21 other colleges sent both their men's and women's teams to the 2007 NCAAs. No other school boasted a stronger bond of friendship between their two teams. The teams shared the same indefatigable work ethic, the same esprit de corps, the same resiliency.

Both had snowstorm adventures getting to their destinations. The men, after a commercial flight to Columbus, Ohio, were "treated like royalty," says Thomas--noting the siren-blaring police escorts to the arena. The women, due to flight cancellations, spent the night in Boston in the lap of luxury before flying charter to Raleigh, N.C.

Two busloads of fans drove 30 hours roundtrip along treacherous byways to get to the game in Columbus and back. Back on campus, projection screens were set up in the Hogan Ballroom and and Crossroads for boisterous students to cheer on their Crusaders.

Thomas, Simmons and their mates, decked out in new purple NIKE sneakers, went down swinging, 61-51. SIU's tremendous defensive pressure took its toll. Recall SIU, once ranked No. 11 during the season, knocked off Virginia Tech and nearly pulled off a monumental upset over Kansas (61-58) to get to the Elite Eight.

The Salukis attacked Thomas from every angle to get the ball out of his hands. Uncharacteristically, the Crusaders turned the ball over 20 times, shot 33 percent from the floor and hit just 21 of 32 from the line.

"Despite all that, we were only down four with six minutes left," Thomas sighs.

Clearly disappointed, Thomas couldn't sleep and paced the hotel lobby. There he found coach Willard, unable to sleep himself even after watching the game tapes over and over again.

Later Willard would say, "Torey has the heart of a champion and he inspired me every day." He would say how proud he was to coach Thomas and Simmons, describing them as "role models and tremendous representatives of the College.''

Thomas and Simmons, whose plans are to take a shot at pro ball, lavished praise on Willard--especially for challenging them.

"Coach taught me to become a man and how to carry a burden," Thomas says.

The Holy Cross women got whomped by No. 1 seed Duke. Their season was nicely summed up late in the game. Keil was seven points from reaching the 1,000 point plateau. She was playing in utter agony. Gibbons pulled her out of a timeout huddle. "You've given your heart and soul,'' said Gibbons, emphasizing she could come out of the game. Gibbons and Keil began to cry. "I want to try ..." Keil sobbed.

She took the court. Duke fell back into a zone. Keil launched a three-pointer. Swish. She hit a free throw. Now her career point total stood at 997. With time running down, she launched another trey. Swish. A thousand, right on the nose. The refs faked a time-clock breakdown so Keil could limp off the court to a standing ovation.

Now Keil is enduring a year of surgery and recovery as cartilage is being transplanted in both knees. Thereafter she will walk, without a limp, into medical school. Forever, her courage will be emblematic of what two Holy Cross teams sacrificed to do the one-step at the Big Dance.

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2007 issue of Holy Cross Magazine.

John W. Gearan '65, was an award-winning reporter and columnist at the Worcester Telegram and Gazette for 36 years. He resides in Woonsocket, R.I., with his wife, Karen Maguire, and their daughter, Molly.