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Holy Cross begins its crusade

WORCESTER -- Not that the Holy Cross men's basketball team needed any help getting excited for last night's NCAA Tournament "Selection Show," but just in case, the Crusaders warmed up by watching video of the final few minutes of their Patriot League championship victory over Bucknell on the big screen at the Hogan Campus Center.

The 500 or so students and supporters who joined the players and coaches erupted while watching senior Torey Thomas score the final basket and broke out in chants of "Let's Go 'Saders" when Holy Cross's NCAA seed, opponent, and destination were announced.

The Crusaders (25-8) earned the No. 13 seed in the West and will face fourth-seeded Southern Illinois (27-6) Friday.

"It's finally sunk in we're in the NCAA Tournament," senior Keith Simmons said. "To see our name in the bracket is really exciting. I remember on my recruiting trip they told me about this night and all the students coming out. This is great to finally be here."

Holy Cross is making its first NCAA appearance since 2003. The Crusaders made three straight NCAA trips from 2001-03 and battled Kentucky, Kansas, and Marquette in close first-round losses.

In 2005, after losing to Bucknell in the conference title game, Holy Cross became the first Patriot League team to win in the postseason when it defeated Notre Dame in the NIT. A few days later, Bucknell upset Kansas in the first round of the NCAAs. In last year's NCAA Tournament, the Bison also scored a first-round win, beating Arkansas.

The No. 13 seed is a step up for Holy Cross. In those three previous appearances, the Crusaders were a 16, a 15, and a 14 seed, respectively.

"I think the fact that Bucknell has won twice in the tournament and we beat Notre Dame in the NIT has changed people's perception of this league," said coach Ralph Willard, who said he was expecting a 13 seed. "People's perception of this league was not as good as it is now. People understand there are quality representatives of the league. Like anything else, you have to prove you belong before you get the respect and Bucknell helped in that situation."

The Bison were a No. 9 seed last year, the best ever for a Patriot League team.

The Crusaders, who played a difficult out-of-conference schedule and reached 25 wins for the third time in five years, are ready to get ready.

"We won [the conference] in dramatic fashion, we got the selection committee to give us a good seed, now we got to go take care of business," Thomas said.

After last night's short celebration, the Crusaders were on their way to the Hart Center for practice and to begin preparation for the Salukis.

Southern Illinois, ranked 14th in the latest Associated Press poll, is making its sixth straight NCAA appearance. The Salukis advanced to the Sweet 16 in 2002.