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SPOKANE, Wash.—For the Harvard men’s basketball team, winning is becoming a habit—but on Thursday, it never looked easy. In a game in which every inbounds pass, every layup, and every free throw had to be earned, the Crimson did just enough to stave off a hard-charging Cincinnati squad, 61-57.
The victory brings Harvard (27-4, 13-1 Ivy) into the third round of the NCAA Tournament against No. 4-seed Michigan State and sets a program record for wins with 27. Combined with last year’s second-round upset of New Mexico, the Crimson also becomes the first Ivy program to win NCAA Tournament games in consecutive years since Princeton in 1983 and 1984.
Despite the difference in seeding between the two teams, the game promised to be close from the outset, with various betting outlets pegging Cincinnati (27-7, 15-3 American Athletic Conference) as a three-point favorite. The teams were evenly matched, though they played with contrasting styles—the Crimson continually cut and crisply moved the ball, while the Bearcats played an aggressive, athletic defensive style.
However, it was some defense of its own—what Harvard coach Tommy Amaker referred to all season as the team’s “calling card”—that ultimately allowed the Crimson to advance.
Cincinnati star guard Sean Kilpatrick led all scorers with 18 points but managed only four shot attempts in the second half. Kilpatrick was hounded throughout the final 20 minutes by junior wing Wesley Saunders and a helping defense that was determined to take away his offense.
Likewise, junior forward Steve Moundou-Missi repeatedly blocked the way of high school teammate Justin Jackson, Cincinnati’s second-leading scorer, allowing him to convert on only five of his 15 attempts, nearly all of which came deep in the paint.
For much of the game, Harvard looked composed against favorite Cincinnati and its swarming, gambling defense. The Crimson absorbed the Bearcats’ pressure and led the whole way after trailing, 6-5, with 17:09 to play in the first half.
But with just over three minutes to play in the contest, that composure threatened to crumble. Two Troy Caupain free throws cut the Harvard lead to one, and on the ensuing possession, Moundou-Missi, bothered by the Cincinnati press, threw the ball away in the backcourt. The Bearcats had a chance to finally grab back the lead.
“I thought we were in business,” Bearcats coach Mick Cronin said.
But, once again, Jackson failed to convert on an attempt at the rim. The Bearcats grabbed another offensive board, but Kevin Johnson came up short on a three-point attempt. On the other end, with the shot clock winding down, Chambers sized up a pull-up jumper at the elbow.
As was the case last year against New Mexico, Chambers had not seen the ball go through the hoop much all afternoon—to that point, he was 1-of-9 from the field. But just like in last season’s upset, Chambers delivered another late dagger of a midrange jumper to give his team some much-needed breathing room.
“Going to the middle, Coach says that’s my shot at the free throw line…. Coach says if you get there, and it’s open, go ahead and take it,” Chambers said.
From there, the remaining breaks seemed to go Harvard’s way. Casey drew a charge on Kilpatrick, a layup attempt by Titus Rubles spun off the rim, and Kilpatrick lost control of the ball on a drive. In the last 30 seconds, the Crimson shrugged off its free throw woes—the team had gone 13-of-24 from the line up to that point—and sunk all four of its attempts to clinch the victory.
Early on, Harvard was carried by its three-point shooting; co-captain Laurent Rivard, who made five threes in the Crimson’s upset of New Mexico last season, hit all three of his attempts from beyond the arc in the first half, and fellow co-captain Brandyn Curry added two more to give Harvard a seven-point lead heading into the break.
Cincinnati looked as if it might physically dominate the Crimson over stretches, crashing the offensive boards and getting numerous second-chance opportunities.
But the Crimson defended well, forcing the Bearcats into long two-point attempts and contested shots at the rim. Cincinnati failed to knock down the open looks it got, shooting 36.8 percent overall.
Though the Harvard bench could not totally contain its excitement as the final buzzer sounded, the celebration on the court was not the flurry of bodies that it was last year against the Lobos. Saunders, who scored eight of his team-high 12 points in the second half after playing just ten minutes in the first frame due to foul trouble, reflected that the win was not unexpected for his team, given the quality of play that the squad has exhibited all season.
“Leading up to this game, Coach emphasized and we all talked about just living up to our values and our standards, and doing the things that have gotten us to this point,” Saunders said. “And so we felt as though, if we were able to do that, we would have a great chance of coming out with a victory.”
This time, postgame discussion of what the victory “meant” to Harvard sounded stale—that ground had been sufficiently covered a season ago. This one was just about basketball, a hotly contested game between evenly matched teams, one of which is quickly making a name for itself as a mid-major power.
“In my opinion, they’re one of the best teams we played all year,” Cronin said. “We knew that all week. They did not catch us by surprise by any stretch of the imagination.”
A highlight-reel slam by Casey, a stylish up-and-under lay-in from Saunders, the composed performance down the stretch—these were not plays made by Cinderella. These were plays made by a team that belonged playing in March.
“I think that we have become a program that’s become relevant in the world of college basketball with what we have been able to accomplish,” Amaker said. “Not just this season—I think you’ve seen what we have been trying to put together for a while.”
—Staff writer Andrew R. Mooney can be reached at email@example.com.
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