After Harvard had grinded out a win over Princeton on Friday night to get within one victory of clinching at least a tie for the Ivy League title for the second consecutive year, coach Tommy Amaker talked about the next task, what was sure to be another grinding game against Penn last night.
“It’s incredibly challenging to have to turn around and play a game with the same kind of competition,’’ said Amaker. “The league is probably going to be won on Saturday nights. Saturday nights probably paved the way for some Ivy League titles.’’
Last night, Harvard’s journey to its first NCAA Tournament bid since 1946 hit a pothole when Zack Rosen hit a pair of free throws with 23.2 seconds left, and the Quakers posted a 55-54 victory at Lavietes Pavilion, where the Crimson lost for the first time in 29 games.
Instead of needing to win only one of its remaining two games next weekend, at Columbia and at Cornell, the Crimson might need to win both, and that still might not be enough to prevent a one-game playoff for the NCAA berth for the second consecutive year.
“Disappointing, devastating,’’ said Amaker, who watched as his team squandered a double-digit lead in the second half, and absorbed a controversial charging call against Kyle Casey, who appeared to have put Harvard back in front with 3.4 seconds left only to have the basket disallowed. “Give all the credit to Penn. They outplayed us, that’s why they won.’’
Rosen (20 points) came through at the line after scoring the Quakers’ final 16 points in a 57-54 victory Friday night over Dartmouth.
“If it’s time to step up, I can,’’ said Rosen.
Harvard established a 30-24 halftime lead, and expanded it several times in the second half, but each time Penn clawed back.
Rosen hit a jumper with 2:31 remaining to cut Harvard’s lead to 52-51. Amaker called a timeout to talk strategy.
Casey went to the line with 1:48 left and made both to give Harvard a 3-point lead, but Rosen countered with a basket. The tension really ratcheted up when Oliver McNally missed a 3-pointer and the Quakers, trailing by a point, grabbed the rebound with 35.7 seconds left.
Most everyone in the building anticipated Rosen getting the opportunity to make a play. He did, driving to the basket and being fouled by Casey with 23.2 seconds left.
Rosen made both shots, and Harvard needed a hoop. Freshman Corbin Miller missed a jump shot with seven seconds left, but the ball went out of bounds off the Quakers. It appeared the Crimson had the go-ahead basket from Casey, but it was nullified on the charge.
Penn was able to inbound the ball and run out the clock, leaving a stunned crowd wondering about an uncertain future.
Harvard, which was averaging only 9.9 turnovers per game, committed 10 in the first 12 minutes. Penn, which also had been careful with the ball (11.3 turnovers per game), threw it away 10 times in the first half with only 2 assists - a ratio that will make any coach cringe.
“Way too many turnovers,’’ said Amaker, whose team finished with 20.
Harvard appeared ready to make a move early in the second half, expanding its lead to 11 in the first three minutes. But Penn is a stubborn team, and the Quakers closed the gap to 1 over the next five minutes, setting up a drama-filled finish for two of the elite programs in the Ivy League.
The only problem for Harvard (24-4, 10-2) was that it was a different ending than it had envisioned.
“Rosen is a difference-maker,’’ Amaker said. “A tough loss for our ball club, but we have a lot of basketball left to be played, which I would have said if we were fortunate enough to win tonight. There’s a lot of basketball to play out before this one is over.’’
Amaker’s players were as stunned as they were disappointed.
“It’s tough to hear that buzzer go off when we’re down at the end,’’ said Casey, who led the Crimson with 12 points.
The Crimson can win the title if they sweep Columbia and Cornell and Penn (17-11, 9-2) loses one of its last three games - at home against Brown and Yale next weekend, or at Princeton March 6.
There will be a playoff if Penn wins its last three and Harvard wins its last two. Or, if Harvard loses once and Penn wins its last three, the Crimson would be left hoping for a bid from the NCAA selection committee.