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‘Everybody’s Kind of Blue’: Harvard’s Last-Second Loss to Brown is the Heartbreak of the Year

The Harvard men's basketball team's last second loss to Brown, which barred it from postseason play earned The Crimson's Heartbreak of the Year.
The Harvard men's basketball team's last second loss to Brown, which barred it from postseason play earned The Crimson's Heartbreak of the Year. By Courtesy of Harvard Athletics
By Alexander K. Bell, Crimson Staff Writer

The Harvard football team’s loss against nemesis Yale, which resulted in the team having to split the Ivy League title three ways, might seem like an apt choice for the Heartbreak of the Year. But the football team still shared a slice of the conference title.

The men’s basketball team wasn’t so lucky, to find hope amid heartbreak. In a game that all but slipped out of its fingers, the team’s overtime loss against the Browns Bears earned the moniker, as it single handedly barred the squad from postseason play.

After battling late into the season for a place in the Ivy League end-of-season tournament, men’s basketball’s postseason hopes came down to a crucial matchup with Brown which would determine control over the fourth and final qualifying spot. Despite starting slowly, the Crimson came back from a 17-point deficit to force overtime against Brown, only to lose 71-68 in a heartbreaker that all but eliminated the Crimson from Ivy League tournament contention.

“It was definitely a tough feeling,” freshman guard Malik Mack reflected. “Everybody's kind of blue, kind of down. We had a game that next day so it was a quick turnaround, but we kind of felt a little down on ourselves in that moment because we put so much into it and we gave it our all that night and to come up short was a devastating blow.”

As the clock ran out in overtime, Brown fans rushed onto the court to celebrate, capping off an electric game by shaking the Pizzitola Sports Center, just as they made their presence known with their enthusiasm throughout the evening.

Reflecting on the game after the season, Mack labeled it one of his favorites of the season, due to the intense atmosphere.

“The Brown game was a big game for sure,” Mack said. “I wouldn't say hostile environment, but definitely something you don't experience often in the Ivy.”

Harvard battled back from a 58-49 deficit late in the second half to go on a 12-0 run and lead 61-58 with 18 seconds on the clock. But the Bears’ Kino Lilly Jr. made a clutch three-pointer with just five seconds on the clock to force the game into overtime.

The first and only overtime thriller of the Crimson’s season did not disappoint. Set up from tip-off as a swing-matchup that would determine control of the final spot in the Ivy Madness tournament, Brown’s win over Harvard had it all: physical blocks, four-point plays, and a breathless overtime period — all in front of 1,700 vocal Brown fans in Providence.

The game started off with Lilly Jr. having his first three-point attempt of the contest characteristically blocked by stretching senior forward Justice Ajogbor.

The Bears’ guard was able to gather his own rebound, however, and sank a second-attempt three-pointer to give Brown the first points of the contest.

Points would prove hard to come by in a tense first half, especially for the Crimson, which trailed 11-4 with 10 minutes left in the first half. Mack then started and finished a couple of tough drives to the rim, adding a pair of crafty layups to double Harvard’s point tally and kick start the Crimson.

Brown continued to make life hard for Harvard with its physical play under the rim and aggressive rebounding. The Bears out-rebounded their opponents 23-15 in the first half, including 11 offensive rebounds, making it difficult for the Crimson to close an early gap.

Mack was able to push Harvard within single digits of the Bears before halftime, as the star guard hit a pair of three pointers and two free throws to bring his first-half tally up to 12 points.

Despite the Crimson’s progress, Brown would get the last action of the first half, as Lilly Jr. easily drove the length of court for a layup to put Brown on top at the break, 28-19.

The second half of the contest showed two teams that were unrecognizable, based on their first half performances. Harvard and Brown had shot a combined 20 percent, 4-of-20, from three point range in the first half. In the second, Harvard knocked down 6-of-9 attempts on 66.7 percent shooting, while Brown followed suit, hitting 5-of-7 for a whopping 71.4 percent mark from behind the arc.

Junior guard Tyler Simon runs the point during the Crimson's loss to Brown on March 1st. Despite erasing a 17-point deficit to force overtime, the Crimson couldn't come away with a win.
Junior guard Tyler Simon runs the point during the Crimson's loss to Brown on March 1st. Despite erasing a 17-point deficit to force overtime, the Crimson couldn't come away with a win. By Courtesy of Harvard Athletics

Despite Harvard cutting the deficit to five behind an early triple and a pair of layups from sophomore forward Chisom Okpara, Brown used its newfound shooting form to retake a 17-point lead, 50-33, with 11:15 left in the contest.

Despite ESPN analytics predicting a 99.0 percent win probability for the Bears at that point, it would have been a mistake for Harvard fans to take their eyes off the game.

Still trailing 56-43 and with less than seven minutes on the clock to work with, what happened next would silence the boisterous student section inside Pizzitola Sports Center.

Initiated by a four-point play from junior guard Tyler Simon, the Crimson went on an 18-2 run, with Okpara, Mack, Ajogbor, Simon, and junior guard Louis Lesmond all hitting clutch points to put Harvard up, 61-58, with 18 seconds to play and possession in favor of the Bears.

Despite a Harvard timeout before play resumed, the Crimson was unable to stop a step-back three from Lilly Jr., who leveled the score at 61-61 with five seconds on the clock, forcing overtime in Providence.

Lesmond started the extra period with intent, hitting a three-pointer to put the Crimson back up, 64-61. Harvard quickly lost the advantage, but Ajogbor slammed home a dunk to enter double-figure points on the night and regain a two-point edge, 66-64.

After failing to connect on a layup and three-point jumpshot, Brown regained possession through a jump-ball, allowing sophomore guard Alexander Lesburt Jr. to hit a dagger three for a 67-66 Bears lead with only 56 left seconds to play.

The Crimson was unable to score on its next two possessions, forcing it to foul and stretch Brown’s lead to 71-66 off of free throws in an attempt to create one last opportunity. Mack put in a layup in the dying seconds of the game, but it was in vain, as the clock hit zero and Brown fans stormed the court, victorious. The final score stood at 71-68.

With the win, not only did the Bears push Harvard out of postseason play, but the Providence squad clinched the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Crimson, having beaten Harvard earlier in the season in Cambridge.

That tiebreaker would not prove relevant, as Brown went on to clinch the fourth seed in the Ivy Madness tournament, eventually beating preseason favorites Princeton in the semifinals to advance to the Ivy League championship. The Bears were seconds away from clinching a March Madness berth, before being subjected to a heartbreak of their own after conceding a buzzer-beating one-handed floater from Yale’s Matt Knowling that proved to be the game winner. Justin Timberlake put it best: what goes around comes around.

The result was undoubtedly frustrating for the Crimson, as it condemned the team to its third consecutive season of missing the playoff tournament by fine margins. Next season, the team will look to end that streak, albeit without its leading scorer Mack, who has committed to play for Georgetown next year.

“It was definitely a little disappointing, but as a team, it kind of brought us together as a family you know, just knowing that we gave it all and that we trusted each other that night and sometimes you play your best ball and you don't win,” Mack said. “That game just brought us together more as a family for sure, even though it was a devastating loss.”

— Staff writer Alexander K. Bell can be reached at alexander.bell@thecrimson.com.

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