ITHACA, N.Y. - When Harvard began its season on Veterans Day with a 76-49 walkover against crosstown neighbor MIT, the mission for coach Tommy Amaker’s team was as clear as it is now.
Win the Ivy League, which the Crimson had done last season - sharing the title with Princeton, though that season ended with a one-game playoff loss to the Tigers and another year of no NCAA bid, a drought that dates to 1946.
Not sharing the title was high on the Crimson’s wish list this season. Last night at Newman Arena, Harvard again secured at least a tie for the Ivy title, holding off Cornell, 67-63.
“Tough has been a characteristic of this team,’’ said Amaker. “I thought we did it [Friday] night [in a 77-70 overtime win at Columbia] and I thought we did it, and then some, tonight. I couldn’t be prouder of these guys.’’
Harvard (26-4, 12-2) could have had the title to itself if Yale had upset Penn last night at The Palestra. But the Bulldogs, whom Harvard beat twice this season, didn’t provide any help, dropping a 68-47 decision to the Quakers.
Now Harvard must wait to see what happens when Penn (19-11, 11-2) ends its regular season at Princeton Tuesday night. A Princeton win would give Harvard its elusive NCAA Tournament berth, while a Penn victory would force a one-game playoff with the Crimson.
“Our goal is accomplished to win the Ivy League championship,’’ said Harvard forward Keith Wright, who scored 8 points, pulled down 11 rebounds, and was part of a group that fought off surge after surge in the closing seconds.
Harvard’s credentials would appear to be strong enough to merit even an at-large NCAA berth. The latest RPI rankings have Harvard at No. 38. The one true blemish for the Crimson is an inexplicable Jan. 3 loss at Fordham, the last-place team in the Atlantic 10.
When asked about his team’s at-large possibilities, Amaker said, “I never get wrapped up in predictions. All I will say is that we have won a lot of games and we will take whatever comes our way and be extremely happy about it.’’
The Crimson changed their strategy at the start of last night’s game by going back to the long-range shooting attack that had keyed a 7-0 start in Ivy League play.
Harvard hit five 3-pointers in the first 12 minutes, building a 12-point lead. Cornell (12-16, 7-7) cut the deficit in half (27-21) by halftime.
But as has been the case on a regular basis, the Crimson had to show poise in holding off a strong surge by their opponents. Cornell quickly wiped out Harvard’s lead early in the second half, and turned the game into a possession-by-possession affair.
As he did in the second half Friday night against Columbia, junior point guard Brandyn Curry provided leadership for the Crimson by hitting three 3-pointers, turning a 2-point Cornell lead into a 7-point Harvard edge midway through the half.
“This is exactly what we wanted, to contend for the title,’’ said Curry. “We got a share of it. We’ll see what happens next.’’
The Crimson built the lead back to double digits, but three 3-pointers by Cornell cut the Harvard lead to 1 as the game hit the four-minute mark. Could this be a repeat of the meltdown against Penn Feb. 25, or the near-collapse against Columbia?
But as they did Friday night, Harvard’s veterans took over. Kyle Casey hit a basket and then Oliver McNally (17 points) added a 3-pointer and lead was back to 6.
“This is what we came here to do,’’ said Casey, one of three Harvard players in double figures (11 points).
Cornell, led by Chris Wroblewski, wouldn’t let up. The senior guard put in a floater that cut the Harvard lead to 3 with 25 seconds left. Wroblewski got the ball back and was fouled with 22.8 seconds left. He made 1 of 2, which cut the Crimson lead to 63-61.
Once again, the Crimson had to find a way to hold on. McNally was fouled with 20.7 seconds left and made both free throws, but Wroblewski matched it with a basket, which again made it a 2-point game. But then McNally made two more free throws and the Crimson had survived. Again.
McNally said the Crimson have not yet met all of their goals. “We have some of it,’’ said the cocaptain. “Now we have to get the rest of it.’’