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Loss to Crusaders knocks men's basketball out of tournament in first round

Underclassmen dominate roster in first postseason home game, but Bears fall short in comeback effort

In the program’s first-ever postseason home game, the men’s basketball team was eliminated from the Invitational Tournament with a 68-65 loss to the College of the Holy Cross Monday night.

After trailing by as many as 19 points in the early going, Bruno surged in the second half but could not overtake the Crusaders, who will advance to the second round of the tournament.

“I’m happy with how we fought back in the second half,” said co-captain Sean McGonagill ’14. “But the deficit we created in the first half really hurt us. We got a few stops in the second half (that) led to buckets. If we hang in there in the first half and get a few more stops, that definitely would have helped us.”

The Bears (15-14, 7-7 Ivy) got off to a rocky start, turning the ball over 11 times in the first half. The Crusaders (20-13, 12-6 Patriot) played a relentless full-court press that flustered Bruno, causing some of the younger players to falter early.

“You saw some youthful mistakes in the first half,” said Head Coach Mike Martin ’04. “The 11 turnovers that half led to a lot of easy baskets for them.”

Holy Cross took complete control of the tempo in the first half — the entire team raced up the floor at every opportunity, often catching the Bears out of position. Anthony Thompson and Justin Burrell, the two speedy starting guards for the Crusaders, created matchup problems for Bruno, which led to open treys and layups. Holy Cross shot nearly 50 percent from the field and 40 percent from beyond the arc in the opening half.

On the other end of the floor, Bruno failed to take advantage of some mismatches of its own. In the opening minutes, the 5-foot-9 Burrell was guarding 6-foot-6 Steven Spieth ’17. Spieth looked to post up on Burrell a few times, but whenever he managed to get the ball down low, the entire Crusader defense would collapse into the paint, forcing Spieth to pass it back out.

Heading into halftime, Bruno found itself down by 11, and its hopes of playing another game this season seemed tenuous at best. But in the second half of play, the Bears came roaring back.

“Our energy went down and theirs went up,” said Holy Cross Head Coach Milan Brown. “I think, because it was such a big lead, that they went into survival mode.”

The Bears actually showed some signs of life as the first half wound down, going on a 7-0 run in the last two minutes to close the first stanza. They continued their success in the second half, pulling within five points of the Crusaders with eight minutes elapsed. Over this 10-minute stretch, the Bears outscored Holy Cross 20-7.

Just a minute into the second half, Cedric Kuakumensah ’16 swatted a Crusader layup attempt. The block was his third of the game, giving him 93 on the season — a new Ivy League record. But the record mark represents just a fraction of what the sophomore forward brings to the team, Martin said.

Kuakumensah is “wise beyond his years,” Martin said. “You can count on him for leadership, effort and all those things that are so important when you’re trying to build a program and trying to change a culture. He’s obviously got some physical gifts, but the fact that he’s so reliable is such an underrated attribute of a player.”

Despite the Bears’ surge, the Crusaders managed to carry their lead into the closing minutes of the game. Leland King ’17 drilled a jumper to cut the lead to four points with just two minutes remaining.

Dave Dudzinski responded for Holy Cross with a layup in the paint. The Crusaders’ star had a quiet 10 points and eight rebounds on the evening, but he carved up Bruno’s defense in the paint, shooting 50 percent from inside the arc. His hop-step-to-jump-hook move mystified Brown’s forwards.

McGonagill missed a triple that would have made it a three-point game with a little over a minute left. The senior struggled throughout the game, shooting 4-18 from the field. Fatigue could have played a part in McGonagill’s struggles. With Norman Hobbie ’17 in a walking boot on the sideline, Martin essentially played his starters the entire game, occasionally subbing in Matty Madigan ’17 and Dockery Walker ’15.

Two free throws from Thompson extended the Crusaders’ lead to six with 30 seconds left. Tavon Blackmon ’17 raced up the court and appeared to knockdown a three, but the play was whistled dead, as Martin had called a timeout.

Despite having his trey disallowed, Blackmon played his best game of the season. The first-year point guard finished with a career-high 15 points and four assists. He fearlessly drove into the teeth of the Crusader defense and converted on both scoop shots and layups time and time again.

With the game seemingly out of reach, King clanged a trey off the back iron that somehow found the bottom of the net, pulling the Bears to within three, 68-65. On the ensuing inbounds play, Burrell lost the ball out of bounds, giving Bruno a chance to tie the game with four seconds on the clock.

The Bears did not have a timeout, so the squad ran a play without the help of Martin. McGonagill raced around a Kuakumensah screen, an event that is often followed by a three-pointer for the sharpshooter. But with all eyes on McGonagill, the ball went to King, who appeared to have an open three. As he rose up, Holy Cross’ Alexander Malachi got a finger on the ball, causing King’s shot to fall short. The Crusaders tossed the ball to the other end of the court as the clock struck zero on Bruno’s season.

“Our guys executed fairly well for not having a timeout,” Martin said. “It was kind of a counter to a play we run on the end line a lot. Leland came off (the screen), and we’re confident that if he gets a good look it’s going to go down. Their kid did a good job challenging the shot. They’ve got good length and good athleticism on that roster.”

While the Bears were disappointed with the loss, the team has a lot to look forward to in the future, Martin said. Of the seven players who played against Holy Cross, four were first-years and one was a sophomore. King complemented his classmate Blackmon with 18 points of his own to lead Bruno.

“I’m excited about the young guys we have, and about the young guys we have coming in next year,” Martin said. “I’m excited about where we’re at, and I’m excited about where we’re headed.”

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