PRINCETON, N.J. - A basketball game ended in faraway New Jersey Tuesday night, and 10,000 Men of Harvard let out a big “Hoo-ray!’’
Well, they should have.
Harvard men and women do a lot of things well, but over the school’s long history, playing basketball is not ordinarily one of them. But Tommy Amaker’s team is the best the school has ever had, and now it will have an opportunity to do something no Crimson aggregation has done in 66 years: play in the NCAA Tournament.
It took a curious reversal of history for Harvard to win its first clear-cut Ivy League championship since the league was formalized for athletic competition in 1954. A year ago, Princeton ended Harvard’s season with a buzzer-beating triumph in a playoff game at Yale. Tuesday night, that same Princeton squad did Harvard a humongous favor, hanging a 62-52 defeat on Penn and thus making Harvard the Ivy League champion with a 12-2 record.
Gotta say it: Harvard is going to the Big Dance.
Neither of these blood rivals was thinking a whole lot about Harvard when the referee tossed up the ball. These are the Duke and North Carolina of the Ivies, and there has not been a Penn-Princeton game in the last 40 years in which the combatants didn’t want to rip out each other’s throats.
So Princeton’s Doug Davis, the 6-foot-1-inch guard whose buzzer-beating jumper knocked off Harvard in New Haven last year, is neither asking for, nor expecting, any thank-yous from Cambridge.
“We had Penn tonight,’’ he said. “In my mind, we didn’t want Penn sharing or winning the Ivy League title on our court. Harvard’s good, but our thoughts were on Penn.’’
As team captain Davis spoke, fellow senior Patrick Saunders was shaking his head.
“It was an interesting game coming in,’’ he said. “I don’t think we have much love for either team. It’s kind of a tough thing to swallow, putting Harvard into the tournament. They’re a good team, but I think they would have said the same thing about us.’’
The game itself was in Princeton’s control, the only tie being at 2-2. The Tigers did a great job of keeping both teams in the game, however, mixing up nice interior passing and some early threes with some atrocious ball-handling.
Princeton turned it over on three of its first four, four of its first six, and five of its first seven possessions, en route to compiling a stat sheet that listed 21 field goals and 20 turnovers.
But Princeton was still the unquestioned aggressor, much to the chagrin of Penn coach Jerome Allen.
“Our defense is what bothered me, to be honest,’’ he said. “From the start of the game, they really didn’t have anything to play for, other than to be a spoiler. So how can a team playing for nothing play harder than the team that’s playing for something? That’s what blows my mind.’’
Penn had come into the game as winners of seven straight and 12 of 14. But the Quakers were sluggish for the first 14 minutes, falling behind by a 21-6 count before a Zack Rosen-led flurry chopped the deficit to 10 (27-17) by intermission.
The momentum shift continued in the second half, until a Fran Dougherty follow-up made it 34-31 with 12:23 remaining.
Princeton coach Mitch Henderson called time, and whatever he said must have been pretty good, because when play resumed, Ian Hummer (18 points, 10 rebounds, 4 assists) nailed a jumper, T.J. Bray hit a line-drive runner out of a 1954 instruction manual, and Davis swished a left-side three.
That 7-0 run restored proper order and the Tigers were never seriously threatened again.
Penn took the loss hard. The Quakers obviously felt they could have defeated Harvard had there been a playoff.
“We didn’t play as hard as we can,’’ said Rosen, who was an unbecoming 8 for 24. “And we lost.’’
They were at a loss to explain how they could have played so badly against a team they had handled easily (82-67) in Philadelphia.
“Those guys stay with their system,’’ said Allen. “It’s unusual, with mis-directions and back doors. But at the same time, it’s the same system they used when we beat them in the Palestra.’’
Do not make the mistake of thinking that Harvard has “backed into’’ this NCAA bid. The idea is to play a full 14-game schedule, and Harvard wound up with the best record. The Crimson did what they had to do, and they have nothing to do with an Ivy League scheduling quirk that allows travel partners Penn and Princeton to escape that final back-to-back game on the last weekend by playing Game 14 the following Tuesday. If anything, that places the other six teams at a competitive disadvantage.
So it’s done. Harvard gets to enjoy its first Selection Sunday. The last time Harvard went to the tournament, the news arrived by carrier pigeon.