SALT LAKE CITY — At Harvard, where the pantheon of alumni includes seven presidents, including current commander-in-chief Barack Obama, and countless movers and shakers from the worlds of politics, business, arts, and entertainment, adding to the historical narrative of the venerable Ivy League institution can be a daunting task.
But the men’s basketball team weaved its way into the fabric of the school’s rich tapestry Thursday night by recording the program’s first NCAA Tournament victory with a 68-62 upset of third-seeded New Mexico in a second-round West Region matchup.
“Obviously the victory last night was very thrilling for our team and our program and for anybody associated with Harvard,’’ said coach Tommy Amaker, whose cellphone blew up with texts and messages from well-wishers from all over, including Harvard president Drew Faust, who phoned from Korea.
“We had a great contingent here of Harvard folks and alums, so it was really neat to get back to the hotel and have a lot of folks there to cheer us on as we got off the bus and walked into the hotel. We had a bite to eat with our kids and tried to get a semblance of calm at some point to be able to start the process of turning the page.’’
Serenaded by their brassy pep band at EnergySolutions Arena, the 14th-seeded Crimson (20-9) skipped off the court after becoming the lowest-seeded team to pull an upset Thursday. In that euphoric moment, Harvard seemed to elevate its program image. The Crimson were no longer to be viewed — mistakenly so — as a team of nerds.
“It feels great,’’ said Wesley Saunders, who had a team-high 18 points against the Lobos. “It’s kind of nice to break the stereotype that we’re nerdy kids and show people that we can play basketball as well. It’s great to finally show on a big stage what we can do on the court as well.’’
After overcoming New Mexico’s gargantuan frontcourt, led by 7-foot sophomore Alex Kirk (22 points, 12 rebounds), the Crimson must turn the page to prepare for sixth-seeded Arizona, which advanced with a breezy 81-64 victory over 11th-seeded Belmont.
Saturday’s winner will earn a Sweet 16 berth and move on to Los Angeles.
Arizona coach Sean Miller noted that Harvard won at California, 67-62, Dec. 29 — the same Pac-12 team that Miller’s Wildcats lost to by 8 points, at home, Feb. 10.
“Cal is a great team, as you know, and they’re in this tournament, so to win at Cal is a tough task, especially for someone traveling across the country,’’ Miller said. “They left that day and went to Saint Mary’s and lost at the buzzer in a 1-point game [70-69]. Again, you look at Saint Mary’s, and whether [Harvard] beat New Mexico on a neutral court last night and played a good Memphis team on the road down to the wire, you start watching them and you know they’re a really good team.’’
In notching its first victory over a team ranked in the top 10, Harvard led New Mexico (29-6) for all but 1 minute 34 seconds.
The Crimson trailed, 53-52, when Laurent Rivard, who scored 17 points, drilled a 3-pointer with 6:16 left. It sparked an 11-2 run. Siyani Chambers’s jumper with 2:17 to go gave Harvard a 63-55 edge.
Twenty-four hours later, Harvard was prepared to flip the page.
“One of the neat things about that for us is that we’re pretty used to that, because in the Ivy League we play on Friday and Saturday nights,’’ said Amaker, whose team lost back-to-back conference games only once, during the penultimate weekend of the regular season.
“We talked about that as something that will hopefully serve us well while we’re here.’’
Arizona is bigger, stronger, and deeper than New Mexico, which owned the No. 2 RPI in the nation but was dispatched back to Albuquerque after making 37.5 percent of its shots compared with 52.4 for Harvard.
“I don’t know how much we look at it as ‘imposing,’ ”Amaker said. “You don’t get to this point if you aren’t pretty good. We’ve shown that we can be pretty good at times. This tournament can be magical because it’s a one-shot deal, a one-day situation, and all you have to do is play better that day.
“So we’re not looking at it as anything imposing. We’re looking at it as an incredible opportunity.’’Michael Vega can be reached at email@example.com.