PROVIDENCE — They celebrated as much as they could in someone else’s gym.
With the Ivy League finally in their hands, the Harvard Crimson turned to their pocket of fans in the stands and yelled from Yale’s home floor Friday night. They kept the decibel level up once they got to the locker room.
Even the bus ride back from New Haven had an extra buzz.
“Eh . . . louder than after a loss,” senior forward Laurent Rivard said. “You could say that. We were really happy, but we knew we had another game today.”
But it was fair to wonder about the come-down.
With no carrot left to dangle, how would Harvard coach Tommy Amaker make sure his team was still motivated?
The Crimson’s season-ender against Brown Saturday night could’ve essentially been an afterthought of a game.
They had wrapped up their fourth straight Ivy League title and their third straight trip to the NCAA Tournament by beating Yale on its own floor.
They had already taken pictures with the trophy. They were the first team in the tournament field.
Everything Harvard had left to play for was statistical. One last win and the Crimson would finish with a perfect record on the road in the Ivy League, set a school record for the most Ivy wins in a season, and match the school record for most wins overall.
Meanwhile, Brown was trying to finish above .500 in Ivy League play for the first time since 2008. It will more than likely be the Bears’ sixth straight year without an appearance in any postseason tournament.
If Harvard (26-4, 13-1) had anything at stake, it was the momentum it had built over the past month. The Crimson had won their past six games by double-digits and held teams to an average of 51 points.
In theory, all the biggest chips were off the table. And still, there was a game to play. Brown (15-13, 7-7) made sure it wasn’t a walkover.
Instead of a tidy season finale to tie a bow on one of its best seasons, Harvard had to survive a manic overtime thrill ride to pull out a 98-93 win.
“It’s obvious that [Friday] night was a big night and it meant a lot in a lot of different ways in what we were able to accomplish and to achieve,” Amaker said. “That’s not taking anything away from Brown tonight, but that’s a factor for sure. I was hoping that we were going to be mature enough and tough enough that we could turn it around and really play in a manner that we had been playing.”
A night after absorbing the 28-point onslaught from the Ivy League’s third-leading scorer Justin Sears, Harvard took another flurry from second-leading scorer Sean McGonagill, who finished with 26. The Crimson also had to deal with freshman forward Leland King’s career-high 27-point night, including a jumper that tied the game at 87 and sent it into overtime.
Seven minutes into the second half, the Crimson found themselves down, 63-61.
Coming out of the timeout, Siyani Chambers calmly ran a play for a Brandyn Curry three. But McGonagill immediately drained a response trey to put the Bears back up, 66-64.
Harvard’s best answer to Brown’s binge scoring was balance. Kyle Casey (16 points, 10 rebounds), Steve Moundou-Missi (21 and 11), Wesley Saunders (19 points, 11 of 12 from the line), and Rivard (18 points, four threes) all finished in double figures and the bench chipped in 15 points.
“They’re so balanced,” Brown coach Mike Martin said. “They’ve got a lot of weapons.”
The game didn’t stop teetering until Rivard hit a trey from the top of the arc that made it 94-90 with 35 seconds left in overtime.
Regardless of their march to the end of the season, for Amaker, momentum starts from this point forward.
“I’ve always felt that it’s not what you do going into the tournament, it’s what you do within the tournament,” Amaker said. “We’ve seen a lot of so-called hot teams get into a tournament and not fare well. You need to get momentum within the tournament.”Julian Benbow can be reached at email@example.com.