Colleges

JULIAN BENBOW

Harvard knows how wild the final Ivy weekend can be

Harvard head coach Tommy Amaker urges his team on during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Kentucky, Saturday, Dec. 2, 2017, in Lexington, Ky. (AP Photo/James Crisp)
James Crisp/AP/File
Harvard coach Tommy Amaker on his team’s two-game homestand to close its Ivy League slate: “I just can’t imagine that we’re not focused.”

Since coming to the Ivy League, Harvard basketball coach Tommy Amaker has learned one thing about the conference’s final weekend: the dominoes always fall in the wildest ways.

“I’ve said that to our kids,” Amaker said. “I’ve been in this league now a decade-plus, and it seems like there’s always something that can go unexpectedly — or maybe not as planned for certain people. And we shouldn’t be thinking any differently going into this final weekend.”

He could point to 2012, when the Crimson had to beat Columbia and Cornell in the final weekend and then bite their nails for three days waiting on Princeton to pull an upset over Penn that delivered Harvard its first outright Ivy League title in six decades.

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He still has vivid memories of 2013, when the Crimson had only an outside chance of winning the crown after losing to Princeton and Penn in the penultimate Ivy weekend, then finished with wins over Columbia and Cornell. After the second game, Harvard rushed to its locker room to watch Brown upset Princeton and deliver the Crimson another title.

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In 2015, Harvard went into its final game knowing its chances at a fourth straight Ivy title were slim after losing to Yale in the next-to-last game of the season. The Crimson not only needed to beat Brown, they needed Yale to lose to Dartmouth to split the crown and force a one-game playoff for an NCAA berth.

After they walked off the floor with the win they needed, the Crimson crowded into the locker room and lounge at Lavietes Pavilion with laptops, tablets, and smartphones streaming the Yale game, fingers crossed until Dartmouth pulled off the upset.

Even with Harvard knowing its spot in this year’s four-team Ivy League tournament is solidified, the high-stakes game of musical chairs is far from over.

“There’s always been some twists and turns right to the final buzzer, the final weekend, the final day,” Amaker said.

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Going into the final weekend, the Crimson (15-12, 10-2) are in second place behind Penn (21-7, 11-1). If Harvard wins out and Penn loses one game, the two teams will share the conference title. The Crimson would win the tiebreaker for the top seed in the Ivy tournament if they beat both Cornell and Columbia and Penn loses to third-place Yale on Friday.

“The Ivy League regular-season championship is still on the line,” said sophomore guard Justin Bassey. “It’s still something that we’re still competing for. That’s one of our goals, to win the championship, and that’s something that still matters.”

With Cornell, Columbia, Princeton, and Brown still in the mix for the last playoff spot, the Ivy’s final weekend holds plenty of intrigue.

Last season, the Crimson went into the final weekend riding a six-game winning streak but were two games back of first-place Princeton. Their spot in the inaugural Ivy tournament was secure, but they dropped their last two regular-season games and lost to Yale in the conference semifinals.

“I think that the tournament does make a lot more of the games more interesting at the end,” Bassey said. “Games that previously wouldn’t have been as interesting I think are now really important for these teams that are trying to fight into the tournament and have a chance at going to the NCAA.”

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“Getting caught up in the lights, everyone’s families in town, first Ivy League tournament, the gym’s packed,” Bassey said. “I think a lot of guys kind of get distracted by a lot of the things going on outside of the game. Getting ahead of it, thinking forward to maybe playing Princeton again in the finals. Or getting ahead of the game that was at hand last year, Yale, the first game of the tournament. I think we learned from that and we carried those lessons forward with us into this upcoming tournament and really just trying to focus on one game at a time.”

“I just can’t imagine that we’re not focused,” Amaker said. “I can’t imagine that with what’s at stake — a possibility of things changing by the end of this weekend that could put us in even better position, it’s Senior Day on Saturday — there’s a way for us to finish right and hopefully finish strong here at home.

“There are just a lot of pieces and layers here that are right for the here and now and not so much for next week or anything after this weekend. . . . Whatever the thoughts can be, however the scenarios can shake out — we can mix and match all we want — but the bottom line is we need to play well and be very focused and to get better.”