SALT LAKE CITY—With every passing year of the Tommy Amaker era, it has become increasingly difficult for the Harvard men’s basketball team to accomplish a program first.
But on Thursday night, the 14th-seeded Crimson did just that when it shocked the third-seeded New Mexico Lobos—and the college basketball world—with a 68-62 win in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
“It’s unbelievable,” co-captain Christian Webster said. “We’re still in disbelief, can’t believe it happened.... This is just as good as it gets.”
“This is the type of thing you dream about in your backyard,” said sophomore Wesley Saunders, who led the Crimson with 18 points. “For it to actually happen now is incredible.”
With its first playoff victory in program history—and its first-ever win over a team ranked in the Associated Press top 10—the Crimson became the lowest-seeded team to win a game thus far and set up a third-round matchup with No. 6 seed Arizona on Saturday.
“What a sensational, gutsy effort,” Crimson coach Tommy Amaker said. “I thought we had to play an exceptional basketball game against an outstanding team.”
New Mexico, the heavy favorite that finished the regular season ranked No. 1 in the RPI, rallied to take a one-point lead at 53-52 with 6:26 to go.
But the Crimson would not go away.
Junior co-captain Laurent Rivard answered with a left corner three, Saunders rattled in a jumper with the shot clock winding down, and sophomore center Kenyatta Smith hit a lefty jump-hook over New Mexico center Alex Kirk to push the Harvard lead back to six.
The Lobos would not get within four the rest of the way.
“We just said we had to stick together and believe,” Saunders said. “They’re a great team, and we knew we couldn’t let down for a second.”
Harvard did not ease up, and after two Kendall Williams free throws cut the Crimson advantage to 64-60, Saunders and freshman point guard Siyani Chambers iced the game at the line.
With 18 seconds to go, Williams—the Mountain West Conference Player of the Year—missed a three and New Mexico grabbed the offensive rebound. But Saunders stole the ball and Harvard ran out the clock as the players and the hundreds of Crimson fans at the game erupted in joyous celebration.
“They had a lot of energy, a lot of focus, and they made tough shots,” Lobos coach Steve Alford said. “We just never could get in rhythm offensively...to really get a run and let our defense take over. We were just never able to do that.”
Harvard led throughout the first half and took a 31-27 lead into the break. But New Mexico scored the second half’s first six points to tie the game and then took its first lead at the 18:47 mark when Tony Snell went coast-to-coast for a layup.