NEW HAVEN, Conn.—The heartbreak continues for Harvard men’s basketball.
In search of its first NCAA tournament appearance since 1946, the Crimson (23-5, 12-2 Ivy) fell on a 15-foot buzzer beater by Tigers guard Doug Davis in its one-game playoff with Princeton (24-6, 12-2) for the Ivy League’s automatic bid to March Madness.
The 63-62 loss, which took place at Yale's John J. Lee Amphitheater, relegates Harvard to the National Invitation Tournament.
“I thought we played a tremendous game. We played with a great deal of heart and passion, as [the Tigers] did,” Crimson coach Tommy Amaker said. “It came down to [the last] play. I’m sure they feel fortunate, and we were unfortunate.”
Although Harvard led for much of the second half, the final five minutes showcased a flurry of lead changes.
In the final minute alone, the Crimson took a 60-59 lead on a layup by sophomore forward Kyle Casey, Princeton responded with a lefty hook in the post from forward Ian Hummer, and the Crimson retook the lead with 11.1 seconds left of a floater in the paint by guard Brandyn Curry.
After Curry’s bucket gave Harvard a 62-61 lead, Davis drove to the basket but had his shot blocked out of bounds by Casey with 2.8 seconds left. Following a timeout, the Tigers inbounded the ball to Davis in the left corner. The junior dribbled to the wing, pump faked Crimson junior co-captain Oliver McNally off his feet, and hit a leaner just before the final horn sounded.
“I didn’t really know what was going on when the ball went in. I think I might’ve blanked out,” Princeton co-captain Dan Mavraides said. “The next thing I know, I’m on the ground screaming...When it went it, it was almost like my life flashing before my eyes except my four years here—the worst team in Princeton history all the way to champions of the Ivy League.”
“That [shot] was exactly what we wanted,” Tigers coach Sidney Johnson said. “I was ready to shake hands, win or lose, with Tommy Amaker because we did exactly what we wanted to do. I’m just happy I had a smile on my face.”
The game-winning shot sent Princeton fans storming onto the court and earned the Tigers the program’s 24th appearance in the NCAA tournament and the first for its current roster. The 13th-seeded Tigers will play against fourth-seeded Kentucky on Thursday in Tampa, Fl.
“We’ve won 26 [Ivy championships] as a program, but this is the first time that these guys get to go to the NCAA tournament,” Johnson said. “It’s a very, very special moment for us.”
Harvard, which led for much of the second half, held a 10-point lead with 16:55 remaining. An 8-0 Princeton run over the next two minutes cut the lead to two, but the Crimson pushed its advantage back to six with a pair of McNally free throws at 9:06. The Tigers took their first lead of the half at 5:50 on a Davis three pointer from the right wing, and, from that point, the game seesawed back and forth.
Princeton went up 55-52 after guard Dan Mavraides banked in a runner, but Curry answered with a three on the next possession. Junior co-captain Keith Wright tipped in a McNally miss to give Harvard a 57-55 advantage with 3:18 left, but Tigers forward Kareem Maddox grabbed a loose ball in the lane and converted a scoop to tie the game.
One free throw from Curry and two from Davis gave Princeton a 59-58 lead and set the stage for the wild final minute.
“It was pretty back and forth,” McNally said. “[We] still were there to win it at the end.”
The game saw balanced scoring for each side. Wright, named Ivy League Player of the Year last Wednesday, led all scorers with 16 points, while McNally, Curry, and sophomore forward Christian Webster chipped in 13, 12, and 12 points, respectively. Davis’ 15 points were the most for the Tigers. His teammates, forward Ian Hummer, Mavraides, and Maddox added 13, 11, and 10 points apiece.
Harvard outshot its counterparts from the floor, hitting 51.1 percent from the field to Princeton’s 41.8 percent, but the Tigers owned the boards, corralling 36 rebounds, including 14 on the offensive end, compared to just 24 for the Crimson.
Despite Harvard’s strong resume, the loss dashed the Crimson’s hopes of making the NCAA tournament. Harvard will likely settle for an appearance in the NIT, which begins next Wednesday, March 15th.
“We’re certainly heartbroken and devastated as you can imagine being on the [losing] end of that [game],” Amaker said. “I thought both teams…could have felt they deserved to win this basketball game.”
—Staff writer Timothy J. Walsh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.