SPOKANE, Wash.—In the minutes after the Harvard men’s basketball team defeated the favored Cincinnati Bearcats by a score of 61-57, the team came together near the baseline to salute the fans in section 103 of the Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena. As the team waved and the band played, the crowd in Section 103 stood on its feet to give the Crimson a loud ovation.
It was a fitting salute. By early Wednesday afternoon, Harvard had sold all of the 350 tickets allocated to the University by the NCAA. While Cincinnati’s fans filled fewer than ten rows behind the team’s bench, Harvard’s supporters were fifteen rows deep.
After the game, players said that they felt the crowd’s energy on the court.
“Having the crowd come out and support us, that’s great,” said guard Wesley S. Saunders ’15. “It gives us a sixth man on the court...which was definitely needed against a team like Cincinatti,”
Brandyn T. Curry ’13-’14 said that the crowd endowed the team with an added sense of purpose.
“To have the crowd rooting for us, we feel like we have to do it for them,” he said after the game. “We’re not playing for ourselves, we’re playing for Harvard University, and I’m just proud that we represented the University very well.”
For the Harvard affiliates gathered in Section 103, the game represented an opportunity to come together as a community and enjoy the festivity and exposure that have come with the program’s increasing success in recent years.
“[The basketball team] catalyzes everything,” said Mitchell L. Dong ’75, who sat in the front row of Harvard’s section and has followed the team during its three NCAA appearances. “This brings the whole community together. It’s one of the few times that Harvard is on national TV for a sport. We’re in the press for everything academically, but sports-wise, this really pulls the community together.”
Supporters in attendance included current students, faculty members, and alumni, many of whom had graduated long before the team made its first NCAA appearance in more than sixty years in 2012.
Oliver R. McNally ’12, who starred as a point guard for the basketball team and led the program to its NCAA Tournament appearance in 2012, said he was impressed by the number of fans who turned out to support the University.
“It’s unreal…. We have power conference teams all over [this arena]: Michigan State, Cincinnati, and we had the best contingent of fans," he said.
The day began hours before tip-off at the Red Lion Hotel in Spokane, where Harvard’s traveling party—the team, athletic department administrators, the Harvard University Band, and the Harvard University Cheerleaders—is staying for the tournament. Continuing a tradition established at the New Mexico regional of the NCAA Tournament in 2012, members of the band and cheerleading squad formed a human corridor to send the team off to the arena shortly after 9 a.m.
“We’re getting a lot better at this,” said Luke P. Cheung ’84, observing the orchestrated pomp. Cheung said that this year’s tournament was his third following the Crimson. John C. Wang ’88 said that he has started to account for postseason play in his schedule.
“We’ve started to budget this trip in our work schedules,” Wang said. “If they ever get an East Coast location, it’s going to be huge.”
Of the cities chosen to host NCAA Tournament games, Spokane was by far the furthest from Cambridge.
After the morning pep rally, fans trickled into the Spokane Arena and began to gather in Section 103. Some reflected on the program that Coach Tommy Amaker has built.
“We had one or two on the team who could touch the rim, and now athletically we can stand toe-to-toe with Cincinnati,” said David C. Scheper ’80, who once called the Harvard basketball games for WHRB, Harvard’s undergraduate radio station.
Sitting with Scheper was Amos “Alex” Lowder ’02, who played as a guard on the men’s basketball team while at Harvard.
“Coach Amaker has made a real effort to connect with alumni,” Lowder said, adding that the coach and his assistants make a point of stopping to talk with alumni when the travel to road games.
“It feels like a community,” Lowder said.
Scheper added that basketball, like football, has become a rallying point for alumni.
“When you’re really good at something that people can rally around, people will come from far and wide...even if the game is in Spokane.
—Staff writer Matthew Q. Clarida can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @mattclarida.