NOTEBOOK: Men's Basketball Continues Surprising Run
SALT LAKE CITY—Though the Harvard men’s basketball team was 2,500 miles away from Cambridge on Thursday night, familiar chants of “I believe that we will win” filled EnergySolutions Arena as the clock wound down.
Playing in front of a crowd of 14,345, the Crimson did what no Harvard team had done before, clinching the first NCAA tournament win in program history.
“I thought that our fans were amazing,” Crimson coach Tommy Amaker said. “Our band, our cheerleaders, everyone was so enthused…. I thought that helped us get momentum.”
Matched up against No. 3-seed New Mexico—a team which many believed was poised to make a run to the Final Four—the Crimson took the lead early and controlled the pace, cementing the 68-62 victory with a pair of Wesley Saunders free throws with 18 seconds on the clock.
The win—also Harvard’s first over a team ranked in the top 10 by the Associated Press—came despite season-long adversity.
After seniors Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry took a leave of absence at the start of the academic year, few were certain about how the team would adapt. Princeton was picked to win the league in the preseason coaches’ poll, and the Crimson’s roster was full of question marks.
But Harvard’s young lineup emerged in non-conference play, with freshman point guard Siyani Chambers running the court and Saunders, a sophomore, putting up big points. When the Crimson beat Princeton at home, it seemed poised to make a title run.
It wouldn’t come easily.
Two weeks later, Harvard fell to the Tigers on the road and was upset by Penn the next night, leaving Princeton in control of the Crimson’s fate. Going into the final weekend of Ivy League play, Harvard was forced to wait and hope as the Tigers dropped both contests and handed the Crimson the Ivy League title, sending the team to the tournament.
Though the Lobos were heavy favorites—considered by some to be under-seeded—Harvard came away with the surprise win and cemented its place in program history.
MAKING IT BIG
At the end of the first half, the Lobos had gone to the line 11 times. The Crimson had yet to draw a shooting foul.
New Mexico used its size and strength inside to create foul trouble for Harvard’s bigs, especially sophomore forward Kenyatta Smith, who finished the first half with three personal fouls. After Smith got his fourth five minutes into the second half, he went to the bench for the next eight minutes.
Smith re-entered the game with seven minutes on the clock and fouled out six minutes later, but during that time he made his presence felt. He added four of his ten points down the stretch—a driving shot on Lobos center Alex Kirk and two free throws—and swatted a Kirk layup that would have brought the Lobos within four.
“He had a huge block that energized our team,” Amaker said. “Those are the plays we know he’s capable of making…. We called on him after sitting for a long period of time and he responded well.”