SPOKANE, Wash. — His team was sitting in a double-digit hole, and it just wasn’t where Brandyn Curry wanted his Harvard career to end.
Not after buying in wholeheartedly on Tommy Amaker’s pitch five years ago that the Crimson could go from an Ivy League afterthought to an NCAA Tournament regular and then seeing it happen.
Not after spending last year away from the team, texting and talking with players and coaches just to maintain as much of a connection as possible with the program from a distance, watching from his living room as the Crimson broke apart brackets with their first-ever NCAA Tournament win.
Not after coming back this season and not only embracing a role off the bench but thriving in it as essentially a starter in Amaker’s back pocket.
Not facing the painful possibility that this could be his last game.
Michigan State had made the first half of their 80-73 win over the Crimson look like the “Wide World of Sports,” outrunning, outjumping, and outhustling the Crimson.
Spartans forward Branden Dawson (26 points) matched his career high with 20 points in the first half, and he did it on layups, dunks, and putbacks.
Michigan State forced 11 turnovers, shot 54 percent, stomped through the paint (24 points), turned fast breaks into footraces (10 points), and it felt like all chatter writing off the Crimson as a team out of their league against a Big Ten giant was being validated.
“As good as they are, we were still better than what we played in the first 20 minutes,” Amaker said. “It was important for us to remember who we were and who we’ve been all year.”
Down, 45-33, at the half, Curry got the attention of the locker room.
“This being my last game, I just said at halftime, we just need to fight,” Curry said. “We were down in a big hole and I felt in the first half that just wasn’t us out there.”
So they started punching back.
They squeezed the Spartans on defense and put the pressure on them with big shots and strong finishes until what was a 16-point deficit had completely evaporated.
“That’s definitely one thing we wanted to do, was put game-type pressure on them,” Curry said. “We felt like we wanted to really challenge them. It was kind of easy for them with all the shots and layups they were getting. We wanted to really challenge them.”
The Crimson trailed by just 2 with 9:08 left thanks to a 19-3 run.
For nearly six minutes in the middle of the second half, the only field Michigan State mustered was a two-hand tip-dunk from Gary Harris.
Steve Moundou-Missi finished with a double-double (11 points, 10 rebounds), scoring all of his points in the second half.
When he flushed a two-handed dunk at 13:50, cutting the deficit to single digits, Harvard had the look of a team that had hijacked the momentum.
“Obviously after the first half we felt like we didn’t play great,” Moundou-Missi said. “The second half was all about our effort and fight. We weren’t going to go out like that and I thought we did a really good job as a team to fight. They’re a great team, have great players. But it was a tough fight.”
The Spartans kept a close eye on Crimson sharpshooter Laurent Rivard, rarely letting him get a clean look. Rivard didn’t take his first shot until 13 minutes had elapsed.
But the ball swung his way with 7:11 left in the game and he drilled his first 3-pointer of the night, putting the Crimson up, 62-60.
But Travis Trice immediately responded with a 3-pointer, and from there the Spartans battled to keep control of the game.
Michigan State knocked down six straight free throws in the final 41 seconds to put the Crimson away.
“They responded like great teams do,” Curry said. “They didn’t lose composure. It’s easy at that moment — they had been winning the whole time and we made a run — for a team to cave in. That’s just the sign of a great team. That’s what they are. They’re a great team and they showed it right there.”
Michigan State advanced to its 12th Sweet 16 in the last 16 years. It will face the winner of Sunday’s matchup between Virginia and Memphis.
But if there was a question about whether Harvard belonged, the Crimson managed to answer it. Even in a loss.
“We just came out and fought our hardest and that’s really all you can ask sometimes, no matter what the scoreboard says,” said Ivy League player of the year Wesley Saunders, who finished with 22 points, going 10 of 10 from the foul line. “I think that we showed some people that we have the heart of a champion.”
Amaker knew the Crimson, who set a program record for wins (27) and reached the third round for the second straight year, had left their mark on the tournament.
“I can’t say enough about our team about the effort and the guts that they showed in the second half to make a run, to take the lead, playing with so much composure and poise and fight,” Amaker said. “I was so proud to see that happen. They’ve played that way all year for our program. We’ve had an amazing season.
“I thought our kids competed. We knew we would. We certainly were knocked back at the beginning . . . but I think we’re a ball club that people recognize that it’s a darn good basketball team.”Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.