NEW HAVEN — The Harvard Crimson had every reason to have tunnel vision.
They had finally gotten to a point where none of the other scores around the Ivy League mattered.
They had treated every game that way all season, but going into Payne Whitney Gym at Yale Friday night, it couldn’t have been more true.
They didn’t have to wonder whether Columbia was up or what Princeton was doing.
Winning their fourth straight Ivy League title and making their third straight trip to the NCAA Tournament was all in their hands.
“We had been talking about how we’ve got to seize the moment because it’s right there,” senior guard Brandyn Curry said. “It was in our control. The only thing we had to do was just keep being us. We didn’t have to be impostors or anything like that. Just play our game.”
All the Crimson (25-4, 12-1) had to do was deal second-place Yale its fourth Ivy League loss of season and they would tie a bow on another title.
From the start of their 70-58 clinching win over the Bulldogs, it was as if the Crimson had caught the scent of the Ivy League championship and spent the night chasing after it wildly and rabidly until it was theirs.
The Crimson shot 57 percent, held Yale to 36 percent, and sealed their third straight outright Ivy title.
They became the first team to join the NCAA Tournament field. When the horn sounded, they didn’t have to rush to check any scores. They just celebrated.
“It’s just great that we know that we’re going now,” Curry said. “These last couple years, we kind of had to wait until other teams were done and had to wait for other teams to lose or drop one or beat [somebody] for us to get in. It’s just great to have that out of the way and done with.”
Siyani Chambers finished with a team-high 17 points, Steve Moundou-Missi added 16 points and six rebounds, and for the third time in the past four games, Curry finished in double figures, throwing in 14 points off the bench.
The Crimson mercilessly piled up a 16-4 lead, putting exclamation points after every basket, whether it was a dunk by Kyle Casey, an old-fashioned 3-point play from Moundou-Missi, or a bow-and-arrow 3 from Laurent Rivard.
The Bulldogs (15-12, 9-4) missed their first four shots from the floor and didn’t score their first basket until nearly five minutes into the game.
For a large stretch, Justin Sears seemed to be the beginning and end of Yale’s offense. He scored the Bulldogs’ first 7 points, and 13 of the 23 points they mustered in the first half. He finished with 28 points and 13 rebounds.
Harvard’s 14-for-32 night from the line made the game seem closer, and kept the possibility of a comeback dangling in front of the Bulldogs. But when Yale made one last, desperate push, closing to 59-51 with just under four minutes remaining, Chambers and Rivard all but slammed the door shut with a pair of treys.
The Crimson were able to exact a bit of revenge from the only Ivy League team that was able to steal a win from them this season.
Harvard has won six straight by double digits and the catalyst was actually that mid-February loss to the Bulldogs.
“I thought we made a concerted effort to regroup and respond and we’ve been on a mission since then,” Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said.
Yale coach James Jones said when he watched film of Harvard before the game that the Crimson looked significantly different than they did a month ago. The team that gave up 74 points to Yale in February was replaced by a team that had held their past three opponents to 47.
“They did seem like a different team defensively,” Jones said. “Two years ago, I think it was Tommy’s best defensive team, where they denied and did a great job. I think they’ve gotten back to a little bit of that in the last three games that were played up until this one here. I just thought it was more us than anything else.”
Should Harvard finish the season with its current three-game lead, it would be the widest margin to decide the Ivy since Cornell won by three games in 2008-09.
At 12-1, the Crimson matched the 2011 and 2012 Harvard teams for most Ivy League wins in school history, a mark they could have for their own with a win Sunday at Brown. A victory there in the season finale would be their 26th, tying the 2012 team for the most in a season.
The only way the Crimson would be able to pass that group is with a win in the tournament.
A year ago, Harvard shattered the brackets when they went in as a No. 14 seed and stunned third-seeded New Mexico, 68-62. It was the first tournament win in the history of the program.
Now, they’re looking to build on it.
Asked if they ever caught themselves looking at the tournament projections, Amaker answered for himself and his team, flat-out, “No.”
But looking at the way his team locked in the past month, he was more than encouraged by the possibilities for March.
“I think this team, we’re hitting our stride and I’m very impressed with that,” Amaker said. “To be able to say that at this time of the year, when at times you can look like you’re limping to the finish line — and we’ve been one of those teams. I just like where this team is and the psyche of this team.’’