The past few days have been a whirlwind for Holy Cross women’s basketball.
They beat their rivals down the turnpike, Boston University, 66-61 on Sunday to bring the Patriot League conference title to Worcester. That earned the Crusaders a bid in the NCAA Tournament, where on Friday they’ll face off against Maryland, the No. 2 seed in their region of the bracket. And they are the only Division I program in Massachusetts to make it to the tournament this year.
Junior forward Janelle Allen said it all doesn’t feel like it’s true yet.
“So, I feel like once we start, you know, getting on the bus and loading up our stuff, it’s gonna hit us like, ‘Wow, we’re actually here,’” Allen said before practice on Wednesday.
Over the course of just a few days, the Crusaders have had to balance the elation of earning the program’s 13th-ever invite to the Big Dance with the daunting task of being a Cinderella facing off against one of the best teams in the country. But for head coach Maureen Magarity’s squad, there’s joy in just getting this far. And a quiet confidence that they can maybe bust a few brackets.
Magarity is no stranger to what this moment means for a player: In 2000, she was a first-year student at Boston College when the Eagles advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament. And in 2004, she was a senior on the Marist squad that made the program’s first-ever trip to the NCAA Tournament. They lost in the first-round to Oklahoma, but the memory still shines bright for Magarity.
“And to be able to go to the Big Dance with your best friends is still one of my most cherished moments of my entire life, besides the birth of my children to be honest, you know?” she said with a chuckle. “And we were the first team in school history to bring Marist to the NCAAs and there was five of us seniors. So, I just kind of explained to the players about how great it is to do it with people that you love and your best friends.”
It's a sentiment that her players already understand. Addisyn Cross is the only senior for Holy Cross this season. Her freshman year, the Crusaders’ season was cut short when the Patriot League canceled its tournament amid the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, that journey is getting a storybook ending.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better way to finish out my senior year,” Cross said. “I’m gonna look back on these memories for forever. I mean, last Sunday was probably the best day of my life. So, this is just an incredible experience, and I’m so glad I get to experience it with my team.”
On Friday, the March Madness dream will become a reality when Holy Cross faces off against Maryland on the Terrapins’ home court. It will be just the third time the two programs have met, with the first being Holy Cross’ only win in prior NCAA Tournaments, all the way back in 1991.
This time, they’ll meet a program led by head coach Brenda Frese that won a national title in 2006 and that’s picked up multiple wins against Top 10 teams this season. If there’s any chance for Holy Cross to notch its second NCAA Tournament win in program history, players like Bronagh Power-Cassidy — who scored 21 points against BU in the conference title game and was named the championship MVP — will have to play some of their best basketball. To that end, the junior guard is looking to funnel the emotions of an exciting week into the game.
“One of the things we continuously told ourselves across the entire Patriot League tournament was just be present in that moment and focus on each possession, each play. Every minute we’re out there, we’re fighting,” Power-Cassidy said. “So I think just riding this high and we’re on this roll right now, so I think if we just continue that and use the emotions from the past couple of weeks to just kind of push us on and continue to focus on each moment and to keep fighting, I think that’s just the best way we’re gonna head into this.”
Magarity knows that Maryland will be a huge challenge for the Crusaders. At practice Wednesday, she pointed out the Terrapins’ size, athleticism and pressure on the ball. But she also acknowledged her team’s strengths, like the Crusaders’ stingy defense, which has givenup just 54.8 points per game this season. And while most people probably have Maryland locked in to win, the magic of March Madness is that anything can happen.
“We know it’s gonna be a tough test and we have all the respect in the world for Maryland, but why not?” Magarity said. “Let’s just see what happens and have fun with it and I’m really excited to see how the team performs.”