WEST POINT, N.Y. -- This has been the most difficult season of Holy Cross coach Bill Gibbons' long career.
The veteran coach nearly broke down when reflecting on how difficult this season was after losing to Army 68-58 in the final of the Patriot League tournament championship on Saturday.
He had been put on paid administrative leave for three months after a former player filed a civil suit against him right before the start of the season, alleging that he physically and verbally abused her. He was reinstated in early January.
"It was a year I won't soon forget," said Gibbons, on the verge of tears. "I was hoping to top it off with a championship, but I will hold my head high walking out of here."
Gibbons guided the Crusaders to 11 Patriot League titles, the last in 2007 and the team has now lost in the championship game the past three season. But just making it there this year after what he went through was special.
"If I didn't have my family and my friends and my faith it would have been a lot tougher year. ... It wasn't easy but I think I've risen from it and will be better. Nothing you learn about in coaching 101."
Army coach Dave Magarity echoed his longtime friend's sentiments.
"I think at end of day, Billy Gibbons went through hell and came back," the Army coach said. "He's such a classy guy and I'm so happy he's back coaching in the game. To watch what he went through was gut wrenching and my heart was ripped for him. I'm so happy the Holy Cross administration did the right thing."
Alex Smith and Brisje Malone each scored 16 points to lead Holy Cross (20-12).
"We've overcome a lot," Smith said. "Throughout the season we were handed every bad card in the deck. The whole environment wasn't what we wished for in our senior season, but I wouldn't have changed anything in the world."
Gibbons hopes his team will get a shot in the postseason WNIT after falling short against Army.
Kelsey Minato scored 31 points to lead the Black Knights (25-7) and earn tournament MVP honors.
"We had the great equalizer," Magarity said of his sophomore guard. "She's an incredible player and as special a player as I've ever coached in my 32 years as a head coach."
The victory got Army back in the NCAAs for the first time since 2006. That season rookie coach Maggie Dixon took the Black Knights to their first NCAAs. Dixon died a month later of arrhythmia, probably caused by an enlarged heart. Coach Magarity was an assistant on that team and took over the program after Dixon died.
"Maggie Dixon had a front row seat in heaven for this," Gibbons said. "The job he's done since Maggie's tragedy, he's a class act. If it wasn't going to be us this year for all Dave's been through and all he's done, I'm happy as a friend and colleague. I'm happy for them and sad for us."
With the victory, Magarity became the second coach to lead both a men's and women's team to the NCAA tournament according to STATS. Magarity helped guide the Marist men's program to the NCAAs in 1988. Bill Morris accomplished the feat at La Salle taking both genders to the NCAA tournament.
Minato was a big reason why Magarity joined Morris. The guard scored 17 points in the first half as Army built a 33-26 lead. The Black Knights led 23-15 before Holy Cross scored seven straight to close within one. The Crusaders had a chance to tie it, but Lisa Mifsud couldn't complete a three-point play.
Army then closed the half scoring 10 of the final 14 points, including five by Minato.
The Crusaders got to 38-32 early in the second half, but Army responded scoring 10 of the next 11. Holy Cross closed to 58-50 with 1:54 left, but Minato's three-point play basically sealed the win.
Follow Doug on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/dougfeinberg