SPOKANE, Wash.—While winning tonight’s matchup would have advanced the Harvard men’s basketball team to the Sweet Sixteen, the final result of the Crimson’s contest against Michigan State was, instead, bittersweet.
For twenty-five minutes, the game seemed over, a done deal that was all-but-sealed. The Spartans (28-8, 12-6 Big Ten) went up by as many as 16 points in the second half, scoring with seeming ease over Harvard’s defenders in the paint and from deep.
But with 15:37 left in the game and Harvard’s chances to advance quickly slipping away, a smaller lineup took the floor for the Crimson (27-5, 13-1 Ivy), and co-captain Brandyn Curry’s back-to-back three pointers sparked a 19-3 Harvard run that culminated in an emphatic dunk by junior wing Wesley Saunders.
After Saunders found Curry in the corner for three and sophomore point guard Siyani Chambers dimed Curry on his next trey, junior forward Steve Moundou-Missi knocked down a free throw and a dunk to bring the Crimson within single digits for the first time since the opening minutes.
Spartan sophomore guard Gary Harris and Moundou-Missi then traded baskets, the former scoring on a lay-in and the latter on a right baseline jumper, setting up a crowd-waking, rim-shaking dunk to bring the Crimson within eight.
Following Moundou-Missi’s short corner jumper, Spartan senior guard Keith Appling brought the ball up, and dished it to 6’10” classmate Adreian Payne inside. Moundou-Missi stuck with the bigger man, and forced the travel.
Thirty seconds later, after two Saunders free throws, Harvard went into a press. Curry pressured Harris, and forced him to throw an errant pass to Payne. The pass was deflected by Saunders, and Moundou-Missi ran down the loose ball: he grabbed it, put it on the floor, and stuffed it home over Spartan sophomore Denzel Valentine.
Four-point game, 12-point swing, and a shift in momentum so large that a previously near-silent Crimson fan section began chanting “I believe.”
“[A]t halftime I told the guys that we just need to fight,” Curry said. “[W]e just rallied together…. [We wanted to] put game-type pressure on them…. We wanted to really challenge them.”
The crowd only got louder. A Payne missed three on the other end led to a Moundou-Missi transition tip-in 13 seconds later, and a charge on Harris gave the rock to the underdogs once more.
After a sequence of passes in which every Harvard player on the floor touched the ball, Moundou-Missi misfired on a layup attempt, and Michigan State sophomore forward Matt Costello cleaned up the glass. The Spartan’s attempt to get rid of the ball was intercepted by Saunders, who went straight to the paint and completed the two-handed flush.
Fifty-five all. Michigan State’s surefire bid to the Sweet Sixteen was suddenly a little more tenuous.
Two minutes later, a trademark corner three from Crimson co-captain Laurent Rivard gave the squad its first lead of the night, 62-60.
However, the Spartans responded with treys of their own. Harris and Denzel both drilled shots from beyond the arc, and a multitude of Michigan State players knocked down free throws in the waning moments to clinch the victory, 80-73, for the favorites.
Harvard coach Tommy Amaker attributed much of Harvard’s 22-6 run to the smaller lineup that took the floor, a combination of players that enabled the squad to play a four-out offense. Only junior forward Steve Moundou-Missi set up camp down low, while the four other Crimson players spaced out around the three-point arc.
“I thought that group in particular really gave us the effort that we needed,” Amaker said. “We spaced the floor a lot better being smaller…. [W]e wanted to stay with that group. That group was the group that obviously got us back into it and made the run, and we were hoping that that group [was] going to be able to bring it home for us.”
Early on, this third-round matchup seemed like it would end in a blowout. The Spartans was playing faster, stronger, and bigger in the opening minutes, and Harvard was to keep up with the pace.
Eight of the nine Spartan players that took the floor in the first period scored, while junior guard Branden Dawson led the fourth-seeded squad with 20 points in the first half. Harvard was kept in the game thanks to Saunders’ efficiency. Saunders broke the 1000-point mark of his collegiate career in the opening half, and ended the game with a team-high 22 points, going 10-of-10 from the charity stripe.
Much of Michigan’s offense came off of fast breaks, and its fast-paced attack started early and came often.
Off of Moundou-Missi’s missed shot less than a minute into the game, Dawson grabbed the board and started down the court. The junior found a streaking Valentine, whose runner at the second hashmark was good—2-0, Spartans.
On the following Harvard possession, senior forward Kyle Casey threw an errant pass, which was intercepted by Harris. The Spartan streaked a pass to Dawson, who elevated for an easy dunk.
“I felt like, [in] the first half, that just wasn’t us out there,” Curry said. “We felt like so far in that game, we hadn’t really challenged them. It was kind of easy for them with all the shots and layups they were getting.”
Michigan State slammed down four dunks, rolled in four layups, and tallied one tip-shot in the first twenty minutes, an indication of its dominance in the paint. While the Spartan outscored the Crimson in the key, 24-14, in the first half, Harvard limited its opponents to only 10 points in the key in the final period.
“[At halftime] we talked about how we were better than [our first half performance],” Amaker added. “As good as they are, we were still better than what we played in the first 20 minutes. And it was important for us to remember who we were and who we have been all year.”
As has been true all season, it was a balanced effort for the Spartans on Saturday night. Dawson led the way in scoring with 26, but Harris wasn’t far behind with 18. After a monster performance from Payne in the second round of the NCAA Tournament against Delaware—the senior tallied 41 points, going a perfect 17-of-17 from the line—he managed only 12 points against the Harvard defense, shooting at a 40 percent clip from the floor.
Along with Saunders’ 22 points, the Crimson had three other players hit double figures—Curry, Moundou-Missi, and Chambers scored 12, 11, and 10, respectively. Each were on the floor during the Harvard run that turned a blow-out into a nailbiter.
“We just came out and fought our hardest, and that’s really all you can ask for sometimes, no matter what the scoreboard says,” Saunders said. “I think that we showed some people that we have the heart of a champion out here.”
—Staff writer Juliet Spies-Gans can be reached at Juliet.firstname.lastname@example.org.