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HARVARD 61, CINCINNATI 57

Harvard defeats Cincinnati in NCAA opener

Harvard’s Siyani Chambers (right) leaps into the arms of teammate Brandyn Curry to celebrate the win. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

Harvard’s Siyani Chambers (right) leaps into the arms of teammate Brandyn Curry to celebrate the win.

SPOKANE, Wash. — Mick Cronin hadn’t seen much of Harvard.

The Cincinnati coach had spent his season up to his eyeballs in college basketball powerhouses. If it wasn’t Louisville, it was Connecticut or Memphis.

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The Crimson didn’t pop on his radar until the NCAA Selection Committee made them Cincinnati’s March Madness opening-game dance partner.

“Actually, I hadn’t seen them play until Sunday night,” Cronin said.

He might not have seen the Crimson, but he knew enough about them.

He knew about the four straight Ivy League titles, the three straight NCAA Tournament berths, the five straight 20-win seasons, the six All-Ivy players, the eight straight wins the Crimson were riding into this tournament.

He knew that, brick by brick, Tommy Amaker was building a basketball factory at Harvard. To Cronin, the gap between Harvard and the teams the Bearcats faced all season wasn’t that large.

“They’ve got real players,” Cronin said. “They’ve got high-major players. They can play against anybody.

“If it wasn’t for two slip-ups . . . you’re talking about a team that would’ve been 30-0.”

That’s why the 12th-seeded Crimson came into their 61-57 win over fifth-seeded Cincinnati Thursday knowing they weren’t going to sneak up on anybody.

They were a year removed from busting up the brackets with their first-ever NCAA Tournament win against New Mexico, and they went from Ivy League afterthought in last year’s tournament to one of the most fashionable picks for a second-round upset this year.

With the spotlight on them — and, to a certain extent, the pressure — the Crimson delivered.

They took advantage of the Bearcats’ hapless offense, battled on the glass, and hit enough clutch shots to keep Cincinnati at bay.

On paper, it goes down as an upset — the 36th time a 12 seed has beaten a 5 seed — but it never felt that way.

The Crimson led for all but 3:57, advancing on Saturday to play fourth-seeded Michigan State, a 93-78 winner over 13th-seeded Delaware.

“In college basketball, you look around, and I’ve heard this before, that there aren’t upsets anymore,” said Amaker. “There may be surprises, but I just think when you’re looking at seeds and if you’re playing this time of year, you’re probably a pretty good basketball team.”

After the loss, Cronin threw seeding out the window.

“In my mind, today’s game was anything but an upset,” Cronin said. “They’ve got a great team. In my opinion, they’re one of the best teams we played all year.

“They did not catch us by surprise by any stretch of the imagination.”

Harvard guard Siyani Chambers struggled through a 2-for-10 shooting day, but with his team clinging to a 1-point lead and less than two minutes left, he nailed a pull-up jumper from the free throw line to give the Crimson breathing room.

When Bearcats guard Sean Kilpatrick lost his dribble trying to work his way around a screen, Chambers came up with the loose ball and fled the other way until he was fouled. He went to the line and split a pair of free throws to put Harvard up, 57-53.

“Coach always talks about if we do what we’re supposed to do, stick to the game plan, we expect ourselves to win,” Chambers said.

The Crimson shot 19 for 44 and Cincinnati missed 36 of its 57 shots, but an ugly game worked in Harvard’s favor.

The Bearcats couldn’t press Harvard if they didn’t score.

For all the work Cincinnati did to get extra possessions (16 offensive rebounds), missing point-blank layups undid it.

“They struggled at times to finish around the rim,” Amaker said. “We were fortunate. I think that contributed to their frustration a little bit.”

Cincinnati’s Justin Jackson was a human pogo stick on the glass (11 rebounds, 6 offensive) but he couldn’t cash in, missing 10 of his 15 shots.

“I missed a lot of opportunities at the rim,” Jackson said. “I usually don’t do that, going one-handed, flipping the ball. Just bad on my part.”

Wesley Saunders led Harvard with 12 points but his best work was muzzling Kilpatrick, who had a more quiet game than his 18 points would indicate. He took just four shots in the second half.

“We were trying to deny him the ball back and just limit his touches because he’s a great shooter,” Saunders said.

The Crimson are the first Ivy League team to win games in back-to-back NCAA Tournaments since Princeton in 1983-84.

This victory gave them a program-record 27 for the season.

Amaker, whose name shot to the top of the list of candidates for the Boston College opening just days before the tournament, knows that the milestone only puts more eyes on the program.

“I think that we have become a program that’s become relevant in the world of college basketball,” said Amaker. “Not just this season; I think you’ve seen what we’ve been trying to put together for a while.

“Certainly sometimes, if you can have some success on the big stage that we have had last year and now this year in the NCAA Tournament, we get much more notoriety and exposure for it.

“But I just think our kids have worked hard and represented our school in an incredible fashion and we’re proud to be able to say we’ve become a program representing our conference that we can go on a national stage in a national tournament and be competitive and be a contender and certainly win a game or two.”

Julian Benbow can be reached at jbenbow@globe.com.
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