Almost Sweet

Men’s Basketball’s Cinderella Season Runs One Win Short of a Sweet Sixteen Berth

Robert F Worley

Christian Webster and Siyani Chambers celebrate the Harvard men's basketball team's victory over the University of New Mexico in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

There are a few indelible images from the Harvard men’s basketball team’s 68-62 victory over New Mexico—its first NCAA tournament win and a victory decades in the making. Sophomore Wesley Saunders’s ear-to-ear smile. Freshman Siyani Chambers bouncing the ball high off the hardwood and throwing his hands into the air in celebration. Coach Tommy Amaker bowing to the Harvard fan section, thanking them for their support.

Since the creation of the Ivy League in 1954, Harvard has sent more men to the Oval Office than teams to the NCAA tournament. The Crimson’s back-to-back appearances in 2012 and 2013 were its first ever repeat performances in the NCAA tournament. Its win over New Mexico was Harvard’s first over an Associated Press Top 10 team.

And although Harvard’s storybook season came to a close Saturday night with a blowout loss against Arizona in the third-round of the NCAA Tournament, the victory against New Mexico at Salt Lake City’s EnergySolutions Arena marks the latest in a series of firsts for a team and a program on the rise.

“It’s unbelievable,” Webster said after the New Mexico game. “We wanted to put everything in it and believed in it, but this is as good as it gets right now… This right here is the number one moment of my basketball career by far.”

But at the beginning of the season, earning a spot in the tournament at all, let alone a victory, seemed improbable following a series of setbacks and changes to last year’s roster. In addition to the graduation of Oliver McNally ’12 and Keith Wright ’12 and withdrawals of co-captains Brandyn Curry and Kyle Casey in the wake of the Government 1310 scandal, Harvard lost backup point guard Corbin Miller when Miller left for his mission trip for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

In their void, a number of young stars arose for the Crimson. Saunders, who led the team with 18 points and played 39 of 40 minutes in the victory over New Mexico, was one of them. Another was Chambers, who played all 40 minutes and added five points and seven assists, including a crucial jumper with 2:18 left that put the team up eight points. New Mexico was never closer than four points the rest of the way.

The Crimson had four players in double figures in the victory and sunk 52 percent of its shots from the field and 44 percent from three-point range.

“I thought we played a really good 40 minutes,” Amaker said. “It’s been a tremendous season for our program, being Ivy champions for the third year in a row and getting the first postseason win in the history of the program, and to do it in this fashion, on this stage against an outstanding team. I can’t say enough about how good this team is… It means the world to us, a significant moment for us to be in this position.”

After Thursday’s victory over the Lobos, the Crimson fell on Saturday in its third-round matchup to the Arizona Wildcats, 74-51. Unlike against the Lobos, when the Crimson began on a 7-2 run and did not trail in the first half, Harvard fell down 17-2 seven minutes into the game against the Wildcats. Arizona was up by 21 after 14 minutes of play.

On defense, the Wildcats suffocated Saunders and junior Laurent Rivard—who combined for 35 points against New Mexico—and held them to only 11 points on two for 17 shooting. Arizona senior Mark Lyons scored 27 points and the Wildcats shot 55 percent from the field and 60 percent from the line.

“They pounced on us from the beginning,” Webster said. “I think it surprised us how hard they played, how physical they were and their length and size and speed. From there it was just an uphill battle.”

It has been a battle all season for the Crimson. After staving off several near losses to win seven of its first eight games in Ancient Eight play, the Crimson carried a one-and-a-half game lead into a road contests at Princeton and Penn on March 1 and 2. Harvard lost both games to fall a half-game behind the Tigers heading into the last weekend of the season, but the team persevered. A pair of Crimson victories and Princeton losses that weekend earned Harvard its second consecutive NCAA tournament berth.

“I think the guys have been able to adjust and to adapt incredibly well as evidenced by where we are right now, and I think that’s the main thing to do,” Amaker said.

Amaker has also given thought to molding the long-term future of the program and talked on Friday about building a Harvard brand on the court to match the one in the classroom.

“I love the word ‘vision’, first of all, and we use that a lot because that was real and truthful from day one of what I felt in my heart about Harvard,” Amaker said. “It’s an incredible brand. It’s a magical name, and that’s not a knock to any other wonderful place or institution or university. I just think that it speaks for itself in so many ways of being considered the very best…. What we tried to do is present a vision and present Harvard as an option, as an opportunity.”

With the team notching its first tournament victory and bringing back Casey and Curry next year—in addition to ESPN top 100 recruit Zena Edsomowan—he is well on his way.

—Staff writer David Freed can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @CrimsonDPFreed.