When senior center Brian Cusworth sank both free throws with 1:17 remaining to put Harvard up six, the Crimson should have had the game wrapped up.
After all, this was a veteran Harvard squad that knew how to handle the pressure of a close game. It had two timeouts in the bank just in case it got into any trouble.
And to cap it all off, it had four players on the floor who were shooting better than 73 percent from the line, including captain Matt Stehle and junior guard Jim Goffredo, who entered the game hitting 84 and 89 percent of their shots from the stripe.
The strategy was simple. Let Princeton do its thing on offense, inbound the ball safely, and then beat the Tigers from the line.
The clock ticked under a minute before Princeton got off a shot, a jumper by reserve center Mike Strittmatter that was off target.
Then, the first strange thing happened.
Tigers guard Edwin Buffmire, who stands a generous 6’4, came up with the rebound in the paint and snaked around the Harvard big men for an easy layup.
No big deal. Just 55 seconds remained and the Crimson lead was still four. All Harvard needed to do was stay strong with the ball, fend off Princeton’s desperation attempt at a steal, and then absorb the foul. If anything went wrong, the Crimson still had both timeouts as escape valves.
The inbounds pass found its way to Stehle, who worked the ball to freshman point guard Drew Housman.
The Tigers had three players deep at Harvard’s end of the court, so Housman took a chance on a long chest pass to Cusworth, who was wide open, for the moment, on his same side across half court.
Commence bizarre sequence number two.
The ball floated a bit, allowing two Princeton players to converge on Cusworth. The seven-footer went up for the ball but got undercut, causing the pass to deflect off of his hands and fall right to Princeton forward Kyle Koncz.
As Cusworth glanced to the nearby official in utter disbelief at the no-call, Koncz cruised down court and 12 seconds later, the infamous Harvard killer Scott Greenman buried a trifecta to pull the Tigers within one with 31 ticks left.
“All he does is hit big shots,” Stehle said.
Despite the crushing blow, the Crimson still had the advantage. Princeton would have to foul, and if Harvard got into any trouble, it could call a timeout. If the Crimson could get the ball to Goffredo or Stehle, it would be in great shape, as that would almost certainly lead to two points from the line, leaving the Tigers about 20 seconds to setup for a game-tying three.
“We probably entered the final two minutes thinking that they were going to foul right away,” Harvard coach Frank Sullivan said. “But I’m not so sure they were going to foul right away.”
What followed would have been completely unbelievable if not viewed in the context of what had just occurred in the last minute.
Harvard was successful in inbounding the ball to its free-throw specialist Goffredo.
The junior guard was immediately trapped by two Tigers players, who aggressively went after the ball, possibly fouling Goffredo in the process. Instead of turning to the official and asking for timeout, Goffredo attempted to step through the double-team and get off a pass.
The ball was deflected straight up in the air, and former Princeton junior varsity player Justin Conway came down with it.
“I think Jimmy got hit pretty good, but you’ve still got to take care of the ball,” Stehle said.
Just 35 seconds after Buffmire hit a layup to cut the lead to four, the Tigers had the ball and were trailing by one. There was nothing the Crimson could do now but play strong defense and hope for the best.
But in a rivalry that included so much heartbreak disproportionately distributed to the Harvard side of the court, the finish was a mere inevitability. The names would change, but the story would remain the same.
“It seems like whenever we come up here, it’s always an unbelievable game,” Tigers coach Joe Scott said.
For 15 seconds, Princeton looked confused. Greenman circled around the top of the arc looking for an opening, but as many as three Crimson players tracked his every move.
Finally, with about four ticks left, Greenman found guard Noah Savage alone on the baseline.
“At the point when I was dribbling around out there, I noticed that I had three guys on me,” Greenman said. “Somebody had to be open. So, I looked up, saw Noah flashing out there, and he did a great job getting off the shot.”
With Cusworth charging hard for the block, Savage let the shot fly.
“We just played a couple of minutes of bad basketball at the end, and it came down to that,” Cusworth said.
After four straight home losses by 14 points, last year’s Harvard team finally overcame the jinx for a 61-57 victory over the Crimson.
As the Savage shot fell through with 0.2 seconds left, and with it Harvard’s hopes of becoming the first squad in 51 years to take two straight from the Tigers at home, it became clear that last season’s Crimson squad had only beaten the curse, not broken it.
It should have been over so many times. But with Princeton, it just never is.
—Staff writer Michael R. James can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.