ANCHORAGE — Harvard coach Tommy Amaker’s first Great Alaska Shootout championship was just another line item for college basketball powerhouse Duke, for which he was an assistant in the mid-1990s under Mike Krzyzewski. Nearly two decades later, his second victory at Sullivan Arena was a little more significant, another rung climbed by a program on the rise.
With a 71-50 win over TCU in the final Sunday morning, Harvard (7-1) became the first Ivy League team to win in the 36-year history of the Shootout, joining a list of champions that includes Kentucky, UCLA, and Kansas.
“All you have to do is look up in the rafters [of Sullivan Arena] and you see all the great names and great teams that have participated and that have been champions here,” Amaker said. “We talked about that coming into this, how cool and how nice it could be if somehow we could win this tournament and have our name associated with some of the other great basketball programs.”
This year’s field did not feature the gaudy names of Shootouts past, but there were several potential NCAA Tournament teams competing: Wisconsin-Green Bay, picked to finish first in the Horizon League; Indiana State, tabbed to contend in the Missouri Valley Conference; and Harvard, the pre-tournament favorite. Though anything but a win would have been considered a disappointment, the Crimson’s performance was another important step for an increasingly respected midmajor: living up to expectations.
Harvard’s first-round opponent was Denver, whose cutting offense initially gave the Crimson problems, before Harvard’s superior size and strength overwhelmed the Pioneers. Next up was Green Bay, led by first-team All-Horizon League guard Keifer Sykes. In the semifinal, Sykes scored a game-high 26 points, but a late switch to a 2-3 zone allowed Harvard to pull away, 76-64.
TCU made the final after edging host Alaska-Anchorage with a late run in the first round, and defeating Tulsa, 72-65, in the semifinals.
The championship game was the least competitive of the three in the tournament for Harvard. A 23-6 Crimson run to open the game essentially decided the outcome, as the Horned Frogs (4-3) were unable to unlock the Crimson’s airtight defense, held to 25 percent shooting.
TCU failed to clamp down on Harvard senior guard Laurent Rivard, who set the school record for career 3-pointers in Friday night’s game, allowing him to get free for four of his five triples in the first half.
The Crimson had 10 players score against the Horned Frogs, and had assists on 17 of their 20 first-half field goals.
“Everybody’s unselfish,” junior guard Wesley Saunders said. “We were sharing the ball. Everybody was making the extra pass and looking to get everybody involved, so it was just a great team win.”
Though he scored just 4 points in the final, Saunders, who had 39 points and 16 rebounds in his first two games of the tournament, was named the Shootout’s most outstanding player.
The Crimson were without two starters for the duration of the Shootout, with junior center Kenyatta Smith and senior guard Brandyn Curry both sidelined by foot injuries. Junior forward Steve Moundou-Missi picked up the slack, averaging 12.7 points and 8.3 rebounds per game on his way to being named to the all-tournament team.
Expected to win the tournament, there was not much for Harvard to gain in its national standing after Big Ten opponent Iowa dropped out of the Shootout field in May. But the way the Crimson closed out their first two games, along with stamping its name on one of the college basketball’s historic events, gives them something tangible to bring to Cambridge.
“To have a chance to play the way we played for three games and to win this tournament, we’re very, very proud,” Amaker said. “It’s something we’ll hang on to for a lifetime.”