SPOKANE, Wash. — Let’s start by dismissing the notion that Harvard’s 61-57 victory over Cincinnati Thursday was any kind of an upset.
Sure, this was a No. 12 seed beating a No. 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament, and Cincinnati is among the 25 winningest college hoop programs in NCAA history. The Bearcats produced Oscar Robertson, won two national championships, and filled NBA rosters with rugged rebounders in the days when bag man Bob Huggins put the program on probation because of a “loss of institutional control.’’
Harvard has no such hoop history. Until 1981, the Johnnies played their games on the fourth floor of the Indoor Athletic Building (the gym was above the pool, and Princeton players complained that the Harvard players smelled like chlorine). In its first 111 years of organized basketball, Harvard appeared in only one NCAA Tournament, losing to Ohio State and NYU in 1946.
Forget all of that. This is 2014, and Harvard has players who can keep up with almost any team in the country. With sophomore point guard Siyani Chambers directing play at both ends of the court, Harvard took a 9-6 lead in the seventh minute of play Thursday and never trailed thereafter.
Cincinnati, a team that ranked in the national top 10 for much of the season — a team ranked 15th in the nation coming into the tournament — looked scared and lost against the Crimson.
“In my mind, today’s game was anything but an upset,’’ said Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin. “They’ve got a great team.’’
Cronin went on to note that but for a few breaks here and there, Harvard could have finished the regular season 30-0. The Crimson settled for 26-4 and have advanced to the Round of 32 for a second consecutive spring. They will play Michigan State Saturday at the Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena. The winner goes to Madison Square Garden for next weekend’s East Regional.
Last year, the Crimson were a No. 14 seed and beat third-seeded New Mexico. Thursday they were a No. 12 controlling a No. 5.
Chambers is one of the common denominators. As a freshman in Salt Lake City, he canned a critical shot to seal the second-round shocker. On Thursday, the 6-foot southpaw from Golden Valley, Minn., managed to be in the right place every time Harvard needed a big play.
Early in the game, with the shot clock winding down, Chambers corralled the basketball from a spot way out top and launched a teardrop over the long arm of Bearcat big man Justin Jackson. The ball almost scraped the ceiling of the venerable arena. En route to earth, it splashed through the net.
“Jackson is a very great athlete and he recovered quickly,’’ explained Chambers. “So when I rose up, he was already there, so I had to shoot over him.’’
The Bearcats have more height and athleticism than Harvard, and employed a full-court zone press after baskets and free throws. Chambers’s job was to make sure the Crimson got the ball past midcourt and still had time to run their motion offense.
“He’s our most important player,’’ said Harvard coach Tommy Amaker. “He makes it all go for us. We needed the ball in his hands to make the decisions and plays.
“Sometimes I heap a lot on his shoulders, and I’ve got to remember he’s just a sophomore. And I just . . . I’m thrilled for his growth and his development, and he has a great deal of confidence in himself, and his teammates believe in him so much.
“We only played him for 37 minutes, we needed him for 40.’’
Chambers is one of the more emotional Harvard players, and he almost picked up a technical foul when he slammed the ball hard onto the court (he gathered it on the short hop) after the Crimson were denied possession on a loose ball that went out of bounds.
“My teammates, they were just like, ‘Keep your head in it, keep going, we need you out there,’ ’’ said Chambers. “You’ve got to keep your emotions. That helped me get my composure back.’’
Chambers and Harvard did not panic when the favored Bearcats made several runs late in the game.
Cincinnati cut the lead to 1 point with less than three minutes to play, then took a couple of shots that would have given it a lead, but Chambers rebounded a missed three, then drained a pull-up, foul-line jumper in hectic transition to put Harvard ahead, 56-53.
“Going to the middle, Coach says that’s my shot, at the free throw line,’’ said Chambers. “I got to the spot, he backed up a little bit, and I rose up and shot it. We practice that all the time.
“Coach says if you get there and it’s open, go ahead and take it. So he believed in me and I believed in myself and I was able to take it and I was blessed to make it.’’
With 25 seconds left, Chambers canned a pair of free throws to seal it.
He was asked about being 40 minutes away from the Sweet 16.
“Oh, wow,’’ said Chambers. “Always getting a victory in this kind of environment and this kind of setting is very exciting.’’
Ten Thousand Men Of Harvard would agree.