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Harvard 56, Columbia 51

Harvard gets win, and help

Friday night couldn’t have gone any better for the Harvard men’s basketball team. Saturday night might be even sweeter.

In the span of less than five real-time minutes, the Crimson came back to beat Columbia at Lavietes Pavilion, 56-51, while receiving the unexpected, but necessary, gift from their friends at Yale. By virtue of Princeton’s 71-66 loss in New Haven, Harvard (10-3) nosed ahead of the Tigers (9-3) in the Ivy League standings.

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If Harvard beats visiting Cornell on Saturday night, the worst the Crimson can do is a one-game playoff against Princeton for the league’s automatic NCAA Tournament berth. Should the teams finish the regular season tied, they’ll meet in Philadelphia at the Palestra on March 17, Selection Sunday.

A win against Cornell, coupled with a Princeton loss at Brown, would give Harvard the outright Ivy title, no matter what the Tigers do in their finale on Tuesday at Penn.

“It’s a great position to be in,” said Wesley Saunders, who scored 15 points. “We took care of business, did what we needed to do tonight, and hopefully we’ll keep building on this.”

This one never lacked drama. Harvard trailed for most of the game, and faced a 4-point deficit (49-45) with 90 seconds left. Steve Moundou-Missi cut the Columbia lead in half by making two free throws with 1:22 left, then pulled down the biggest rebound of the game on the Lions’ next possession. Pivotal, because Columbia had 14 offensive rebounds in the game.

Moundou-Missi passed to freshman guard Siyani Chambers, who raced upcourt, drove to the basket, drew contact and a foul from Grant Mullins, and converted the layup with 41.1 seconds left. His free throw put the Crimson up, 50-49.

“Credit to Steve, first, for getting the rebound. We had a hard time rebounding,” said Chambers, who scored a game-high 16 points (5 for 6 from the field, 6 for 7 from the line). “Steve grabbed the rebound, gave it to me, I saw a little crease, and just took it.”

Moundou-Missi wasn’t finished. After a Columbia timeout, he intercepted the Lions’ inbounds pass near midcourt and went in for a dunk that gave Harvard a 52-49 lead with 32 seconds left. A block by Kenyatta Smith (8 points, 8 rebounds, 6 blocks) and four free throws in the final 25 seconds sealed Harvard’s win.

Columbia made them work, but the Crimson got the win they needed. Princeton’s loss was simply a bonus.

“Our league, who can predict it? It doesn’t surprise us in any way, because it’s been that way a lot this season, as we’ve seen, not just in our league, but college basketball,” Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said. “We’re back in first place, and we know that if we can hold home court tomorrow night we get to share the championship, at the least.”

Harvard took its first lead on a 3-pointer by Saunders with 14:32 left, and extended the advantage to as many as 3 on a pair of free throws by Moundou-Missi four minutes later.

But Columbia clawed back, using second-chance opportunities and a 4-point trip by Brian Barbour to grab the 49-45 lead, setting up the frantic final minutes.

Columbia led by 8 points on three other occasions in the opening half, the last at 28-20 on a give-and-go layup by John Daniels with 1:14 left.

Harvard had a hard time connecting from outside, going just 3 for 11 on 3-pointers. Christian Webster, who was honored before the game as the team’s lone senior, missed all five of his 3-point tries. He came into the game needing 12 points to reach 1,000 for his career, and finished with 2.

He’ll need 10 Saturday to reach the numerical plateau. Fortunately for Webster and his teammates, they know that a victory against the Big Red will bring, at worst, one more game.

Michael Whitmer can be reached at mwhitmer@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.
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