Harvard waited 65 agonizing seasons between appearances in the NCAA Tournament, returning a year ago for the first time since 1946. The Crimson enjoyed the Dance so much, they wasted absolutely no time getting back.
By beating Cornell at Lavietes Pavilion on Saturday, 65-56, the Crimson positioned themselves to qualify for this year’s NCAA Tournament. When Princeton lost its second straight game — the Tigers fell at Brown, 80-67, on Saturday — it became official. Harvard (19-9, 11-3) was alone again at the top of the Ivy League standings, and nobody would be able to catch up.
Harvard entered the weekend in second place, a half-game behind Princeton. By Saturday night, the Crimson were in their second straight NCAA Tournament, clinching the conference’s automatic bid.
“What a victory for our kids, what a weekend for our program. We’re thrilled about the fact that we’re Ivy League champions outright,” coach Tommy Amaker said. “We always talk about how tough and challenging it is to win on the road in our league. We saw that last weekend, and Princeton obviously just went through that this weekend.”
A pair of losses a week ago at Princeton and Penn left Harvard despondent, and in the difficult position of needing help, even if it closed with two home wins. The Crimson got it on Friday from Yale (which beat Princeton), then on Saturday from Brown.
Oh, and they needed to take care of business against Columbia and Cornell.
When the final buzzer sounded against the Big Red, there were more than eight minutes left in the Princeton-Brown game. At worst, Harvard had grabbed at least a share of its third straight Ivy League title, bringing a handful of students onto the floor to celebrate.
Some in the crowd of 2,195 departed, but many lingered, waiting for Princeton updates. Someone found the game’s television broadcast online, which created a gathering around a laptop computer that included Harvard players. When Brown finished off the victory, a healthy cheer went up, and members of the Crimson celebrated behind their bench in street clothes.
Had Harvard and Princeton finished tied — Princeton (16-11, 9-4) has one game remaining, Tuesday at Penn — they would have had a one-game playoff March 17 in Philadelphia.
That’s no longer necessary.
“I couldn’t have drawn it up any better. Leaving this gym right now knowing that we’re going to the Tournament and we have the championship outright, there’s no better way for me to leave,” said Christian Webster, Harvard’s lone senior.
What makes this championship especially gratifying are the obstacles Harvard overcame. The Crimson learned not long before the season started that a pair of would-be seniors — forward Kyle Casey (last year’s leading scorer) and point guard Brandyn Curry — would not be on the team. Both withdrew from school after being implicated in the school’s sweeping academic cheating scandal that involved more than 125 students.
Dealt the unexpected blow, Harvard persevered.
“I’m proud of our guys for believing that we’re still Harvard,” Amaker said. “We may not have what we had at the beginning of the year, but we feel like we have enough. We stayed with that theme a lot this year. What a moment.”
Unlike Friday’s tight win over Columbia — and in the losses at Princeton and Penn last weekend — Harvard jumped in front early. The Crimson never trailed, in fact, leading by 8 points at halftime, and by as many as 15 in the second half.
Just like the Crimson, though, who have occasionally coughed up big leads, they made it interesting at the end. After falling behind, 57-42, Cornell (13-18, 5-9) used a 12-2 run to close to within 59-54, and had the ball with 1:30 left and an opportunity to make it a one-possession game. But Harvard’s defense forced a tough shot by Miles Asafo-Adjei that missed, the Crimson made 6 of 8 free throws in the final minute, and they left the court knowing they’d play at least one more game.
Not long after, they realized it will be in the NCAA Tournament.
“We had the chance to close at home, and we knew Princeton had some tough games,” said junior guard Laurent Rivard, who along with Webster are the team’s cocaptains. “We were sad and disappointed after last weekend, but we never gave up, because anything can happen in this league. We could only control how we played. It all played out pretty well for us.”
Rivard sparked an important 9-1 run to close the first half (which ended with Harvard ahead, 32-24), and finished with a game-high 17 points. Siyani Chambers added 16, and Wesley Saunders 14.