SALT LAKE CITY — Siyani Chambers says he couldn’t have scripted his freshman season any better. When Harvard drew the No. 14 seed in the West Region and a date with third-seeded New Mexico Thursday night, it was “a dream come true’’ for Chambers to make it to the NCAA Tournament.
The 6-foot, 170-pound guard from Golden Valley, Minn., stepped up when he was tasked with becoming Harvard’s floor general, a tall task for a freshman.
“He has led the team the whole year,’’ said sophomore guard Wesley Saunders, Harvard’s leading scorer at 16.5 points per game this season. “He’s gotten us into the sets we need to. He’s been our floor general.
“He’s done everything and more that we have asked him to do, and it’s crazy he can do this as a freshman coming into a new program.’’
Crazier still was the fact that Chambers, who earned Ivy League Rookie of the Year honors, became the first freshman to be named an All-Ivy League first-team selection after he averaged 12.9 points, 2.6 rebounds, and 5.7 assists.
“That says it there,’’ said senior guard Christian Webster. “For as long as the Ivy League has been around and for him to be the first freshman, that says it all there.’’
Just as impressive was Chambers’s winning shot in a 65-64 victory over Boston University Dec. 11.
“He made the game-winning shot with the time running down,’’ Webster marveled. “The poise he had to make that shot at the end of the game, he’s done it all year.’’
Said coach Tommy Amaker, “He’s done an amazing job. As a first-year player, we’ve put the ball in his hands, asked him to be the quarterback of our basketball team and our program. He looks for those moments.’’
‘Adjust and adapt’
A year ago, when Harvard earned its first NCAA berth since 1946, the Crimson seemed to give true meaning to the term “student-athlete.’’
However, when Harvard earned its second NCAA bid in as many years, it was only after the Crimson overcame the loss of projected senior cocaptains Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry, who withdrew from school before the start of the season after being implicated in a widespread cheating scandal on campus.
Asked if the scandal had given Harvard a black eye, Amaker said, “First of all, I think you’re going to have setbacks and circumstances at any program at any college or university, certainly with the ages of the kids that we’re talking about. It was certainly not a basketball or an athletic deal there. It was a university-wide situation that occurred.
“Very unfortunate for everyone involved and for our whole institution. But certainly you have to figure things out, move forward, adjust and adapt and that’s what we have been able to do.’’
After Harvard arrived in Salt Lake City in the wee hours Tuesday, Amaker put his team through a workout later that morning at the University of Utah’s Huntsman Center to get his players acclimated to the altitude. It’s 4,327 feet above sea level here, which is a vast difference in comparison with Cambridge (30 feet).
“They definitely sensed the difference,’’ Amaker said. “It won’t be the first time, when we play, if they feel a little heavy-chested.’’
Said Saunders, “Obviously, at first, it was kind of something that people felt, but I think we adjusted to it pretty quickly.’’
Thursday night’s game was on the minds of former Harvard players Oliver McNally and Keith Wright, who were instrumental in paving the way for the Crimson’s return to the NCAA Tournament in 2012 after a 76-year absence. “I talked to Oliver and Keith a lot, so they’re definitely really happy for us and wishing us luck,’’ Webster said. “I haven’t talked to Jeremy [Lin] at all, but they were wishing us luck and hoping the best for us.’’ . . . Harvard had never faced New Mexico before, and was 0-2 all-time against Mountain West opponents . . . The Crimson entered 0-3 all-time in the NCAA tourney, suffering setbacks to Ohio State and NYU in 1946 and to Vanderbilt last season . . . Since 1986, No. 14 seeds had defeated No. 3 seeds 16 times, with Ohio being the last to do so with an 97-83 victory over Georgetown in 2010.