SPOKANE, Wash.—Cinderella may have been invited to the Dance, but she’s going home early.
After winning its first game in the NCAA Tournament for the second straight year, the Harvard men’s basketball team (27-5, 13-1 Ivy) will once again bow out of the Dance before the Sweet Sixteen. After trailing by as many as 16 against Michigan State (28-8, 12-6 Big Ten), the Crimson’s late second half charge was not enough in an 80-73 loss to the team that the President picked to win the national championship.
In defeat, Harvard coach Tommy Amaker was both quick to praise the Spartans and proud of his team.
“They’re explosive, talented, we knew that,” Amaker said. “But I think we’re a ball club that people recognize [is] a darn good basketball team.”
OUT AND RUNNING
But before the five minutes that Harvard will never forget came 25 it would rather never remember. The Crimson was outscored by 12 in the game’s opening frame, as the Spartans turned the match into a track meet. Leaking out one player after every Harvard shot or turnover, Spartan guards Keith Appling and Gary Harris routinely beat their Crimson counterparts down the court.
However, while Harvard junior wing Wesley Saunders and sophomore point guard Siyani Chambers recovered well, the big men did not. Spartan forward Branden Dawson beat the Crimson frontcourt down the court time and time again, scoring 20 points in the first half on a dazzling array of layups and dunks. Michigan State shot 16-of-19 inside the arc early, dropping down hammer after hammer to bring the capacity crowd to its feet.
“We certainly were knocked back at the beginning…that really put us in the hole, where they got so many transition baskets,” Amaker said.
THE LONE RANGER
At halftime, Amaker adjusted. After putting in his starters to begin the second half, the coach quickly yanked senior forward Kyle Casey after two fouls and two misses in the period’s first three minutes. Casey would not leave the bench for the rest of the half as the Crimson went small, spreading four shooters (co-captains Brandyn Curry and Laurent Rivard, Saunders, and Chambers) around a lone big man.
“It’s been a weapon for us throughout the year,” Rivard said. “It creates a disadvantage for us on the defensive end but also creates a disadvantage for them on the defensive end.”
The small lineups flummoxed the bigger Spartans, who struggled to get forwards Dawson and Adreian Payne (10 combined second half points) going. After turning the ball over once in the first half, the Spartans had 10 turnovers in the second period and recorded zero fast break points.
And as the game slowed to Harvard’s pace, the threes began to fall.
The first, a wing trey from Curry, cut a game-high 16-point Spartan lead to 13. The co-captain’s follow 34 seconds later cut it to 11. The third, a Rivard wing triple that capped a 26-8 run, put Harvard in front for the only time of the evening.
“I thought they responded incredibly well, as you saw, and certainly battled,” Amaker said.
Although the threes bookended the run, the substance of it came from the Crimson’s single post presence. Junior forward Steve Moundou-Missi lived above the rim in the second half, with two dunks and a tip-in during one three-minute stretch that cut the deficit from 10 to two.
More importantly, after Payne and Dawson had dunks a minute apart early in the half, Moundou-Missi closed off the rim. From the 17-minute mark of the second half onward, a Spartan team that had 24 points in the paint in the opening period had just two layups the rest of the game.
“After the first half, we felt like we didn’t play great, and the second half was all about our effort and fight,” Moundou-Missi said. “We weren’t going to go out like that.”
But after David threw a punch, Goliath responded with a haymaker.
Harvard didn’t have the lead for more than 19 seconds before Spartan junior Travis Trice drained a three to give his team the lead. After a pair of Payne free throws, Izzo’s squad pushed the ball on a Saunders miss and found an open Harris on the wing. His three pushed the lead to eight and Harvard never got closer than four the rest of the way.
“We want[ed] to really challenge them,” Curry said. “And they responded like great teams do.”
For the Crimson’s seniors, there was little solace in “almost.” For Dee Giger and Tom Hamel—onlookers the entire Tournament—there was little to be done; for Curry and Rivard, each of whom missed a free throw in the game’s final five minutes, there was little to be forgotten.
“We never wanted to give up,” Rivard said.
The class exited with as much acclaim as any in Crimson history. Rivard, who matched his single-season record for three-pointers in the loss, has made more triples than anyone in the Harvard record books. Casey and Curry returned from a yearlong absence to lead the Crimson to a program-record 27 wins, exchanging individual numbers for W’s.
When push came to shove against a prohibitive national title favorite, the seniors provided the resolve that characterized their careers. Curry and Rivard—who combined for 19 points, 14 in the second half—had five of the team’s six threes without a single turnover.
When Curry, Giger and Casey arrived at Harvard, the team ended its first season in the CTI. Four years and 98 wins later, it was five minutes from the Sweet Sixteen.
“It’s no surprise to see us come this far,” Curry said. “What Coach Amaker has created here, it’s just a wonderful thing.”
—Staff writer David Freed can be reached at email@example.com.