NEW YORK — For most of what turned out to be a long night, Columbia coach Kyle Smith wondered where the whistles went.
Between the horns from the scoreboard, the horns from the band, and the crowd’s screams bouncing off the brick walls at Levien Gymnasium, it was hard enough to hear anything on the floor.
At one point, Smith saw what he swore was a foul, and said to himself, “Did I not hear the whistle because it was loud? I thought maybe someone swallowed it.”
At the end of the first overtime, he heard a whistle he wasn’t expecting.
With the game knotted at 73 and the ball in the hands of the Lions best scorer, Alex Rosenberg (who was having a career night), Smith couldn’t have asked for a better situation.
Rosenberg was one-on-one with Harvard wingman Laurent Rivard at the top of the arc and decided to take Rivard off the dribble.
When Rosenberg got out of control, Rivard stayed in front of him, giving up his body to absorb the collision.
Rosenberg somehow muscled up a shot that banked off the glass and in.
The crowd exploded, assuming Rosenberg had just hit the go-ahead basket with two seconds left.
When they realized Rosenberg had been hit with an offensive foul, all the air came out of the gym. The play unfolded right in front of Smith, but he couldn’t understand the call. Not on a potential game-winner. Not in his own gym.
“I’d just never seen that happen in your own gym,” Smith said. “I just don’t think that would happen at Lavietes. It would be tough. I thought he hit a game-winner. He got the jumper off and made it. It was tough, but it’s like, eh, the thing went in. Ball game. That’s how I had it.”
From the other end of the court, all Harvard coach Tommy Amaker could see was Rivard in perfect position.
“From the view that I had, he was in front of him,” Amaker said. “You couldn’t tell. I thought the officials had a tough job all night because both teams were battling and clawing and scrapping for everything. So it certainly wasn’t an easy game to officiate from their standpoint.”
When the baseline official pointed emphatically the other way, it was as clear a sign as any that momentum had finally swung for good.
The Crimson escaped with a 88-84 double-overtime win to up their record to 19-4, (5-1 in the Ivy League), but in order to get it Harvard fended off a career-high 34 points from Rosenberg as well as a Lions team that made every possession seem life or death.
Point guard Siyani Chambers and forward Steve Moundou-Missi led the Crimson with 22 points apiece. Chambers, who constantly kept the Crimson calm in pressure situations, came through in the clutch, knocking down 9 of 11 free throws.
But it wasn’t until late in the second overtime that Harvard found a way to stop the game from teetering away.
Leading, 97-77, with 59 seconds left, Chambers found Wesley Saunders cutting backdoor. Saunders drove the baseline until he ran out of room and raised up anyway looking to squeeze a layup past the forest of Columbia defenders.
At the last second, he spotted Rivard, Harvard’s deadliest 3-point shooter, standing alone in the corner. He hit him with a perfect pass midair. Rivard had all the time he needed to size up the shot before he drilled it. The shot gave the Crimson an 82-77 lead, and from that point Columbia was left scrambling.
“The beautiful part of that possession there was we had two guys that made the right play,” Amaker said. “Those two guys are our best playmakers and boy did they make the right play. Then, Laurent, he’s got the easy part — just make the shot — and he did.”
When it split the rim, Amaker knew it was a dagger.
“Rivard’s threes have always, in a lot of ways, they’ve counted more for us than the 3 points that go on the scoreboard,” Amaker said. “It really gives us a shot in the arm and it gives us a confidence that we gained from it.”
A Columbia team that came in desperate after dropping three games in a difficult five-game road run had no more fight left.
As if they needed a reminder after splitting two rugged games against Brown and Yale a week ago, Columbia was another example of a team that had Harvard in its crosshairs coming in.
It’s a gift and a curse, Amaker said.
“The emotional and mental drain that it can take on a ballclub, it’s happened with us,” said Amaker. “I think we’ve seen it already and I think that’s caused us to be mentally fatigued somewhat at times, but those are problems you want to have. Those are positions you want to be in.”Julian Benbow can be reached at email@example.com.