Two more NCAA dance cards punched

March 15, 2003 at 9:22 AM
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WORCESTER, Mass., March 15 (UPI) -- Holy Cross became the first school to win three consecutive Patriot League titles in the 13-year history of the league Friday.

The Crusaders beat American, 72-64, in the league championship game.

Also, Sam Houston State earned its first NCAA Tournament appearance with a 69-66 overtime victory over Stephen F. Austin in the Southland Conference championship game.

Both Holy Cross (26-4), which has won 12 straight and 20 of 21, and Sam Houston State (23-6) had the advantage of playing their title games at home. They became the 15th and 16th teams to earn automatic bids to the 65-team NCAA Tournament field.

"I would like to think with 12 straight wins and 20 out of our last 21, we'd get some (seeding) consideration from the (NCAA Tournament) Committee, maybe as high as 13, but we'll let the committee decide that on Sunday," said Holy Cross Coach Ralph Willard.

The previous two seasons, Holy Cross was given a 16th seed and fell in the first round to Kentucky and Kansas, respectively.

Patrick Whearty, the Patriot League Player of the Year, earned tournament MVP with 21 points in Friday's win. Tim Szatko had 15 points, and freshman Kevin Hamilton added 13 for Holy Cross.

With the game tied at 51-51, Hamilton converted a layup, was fouled, and missed the free throw, but retrieved the rebound and passed to Whearty, who hit a layup, was fouled, and made the free throw with 7:05 left. That ignited a decisive 11-0 spurt for the Crusaders.

American (16-14) was the last team to beat Holy Cross, 72-49 on Jan. 26.

While Willard is worrying about his seed, Sam Houston State Coach Bob Marlin is just happy to make the NCAA Tournament.

Three years ago, the Bearkats had the best record in the league, but lost in the conference tournament semifinals.

Forward Donald Cole, the conference's Player of the Year, hit a three-pointer with 14 seconds left in overtime to give Sam Houston State a 68-66 lead, and added a free throw with two seconds remaining.

Cole finished with 26 points and 11 rebounds.

Stephen F. Austin (21-8) had outscored the Bearkats, 22-8 in the final 11:53 to force overtime.

"I have no idea what kind of a seed we'll get," said Sam Houston Coach Bob Marlin of his team's assignment in the NCAA Tournament. "I wouldn't think we'd be a 16 (among the last four teams selected), but in the NCAA you never know."

A total of 34 at-large bids will be extended by the NCAA Selection

Committee on Sunday, when the field is officially announced.

The major conferences will hold their championship games this weekend, including the Big East, Big Ten, ACC, and Big 12.

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