NEW HAVEN, Conn.—With 2:34 left in a potentially title-deciding game and Yale cutting into its lead, Harvard turned to a familiar face to regain momentum.
After a series of crosscourt passes, junior wing Wesley Saunders sent a bullet to co-captain Laurent Rivard in the left corner. Rivard caught, shot, and extended his team’s advantage to double digits once more.
And with that bucket, the Harvard men’s basketball team marched into madness.
Two minutes later, it was official. The Crimson (25-4, 12-1 Ivy) had clinched its third straight berth in the NCAA Tournament with a 70-58 win over Yale (15-12, 9-4) on Friday night at the Payne Whitney Gymnasium. With the victory, Harvard also nabbed its third consecutive outright Ivy League title.
While the visiting squad was in control for a majority of the matchup, a late run from the Bulldogs necessitated the late game heroics from Rivard.
Following an up-and-under layup from Saunders, Eli sophomore forward Justin Sears forced the ball into the lane, drew contact, and sunk a baby jumper. With his and-one free throw, Sears cut Harvard’s advantage to 11, 57-46, and instigated Yale’s comeback attempt.
On the next possession, Sears grabbed a defensive board and pushed the ball up the court. The forward passed the rock off to a teammate, and got it back, slicing into the paint. Sears elevated, and slammed the ball home over Rivard, cutting his squad’s deficit to single digits for the first time since the opening half.
Yale began to pressure on defense as well, trapping Harvard in the backcourt in a 1-2-2 press.
However, with 3:28 to go, a Crimson dagger deflated Yale’s newfound energy.
Sophomore point guard Siyani Chambers brought the ball up the court, and sent the rock to senior forward Kyle Casey at the free-throw line. Casey looked around, and then returned the ball to Chambers, who was waiting with open hands at the top of the key. The point guard drilled the three, pushing Harvard’s lead to 11.
Sears responded with a pair of free throws, but it was too little too late as 68 seconds later, Rivard’s shot from deep all-but clinched the Crimson’s win, championship, and tournament bid.
“It’s obvious how thrilled and proud we are of that effort by our kids,” Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said. “We prepared, we knew how challenging it would be going against [Yale] and especially here.… I think we’ve shown that we have been the best team in our league…. We are pleased for our program, thrilled for our school, and happy for our kids for a job well done.”
It took Harvard only one possession to gain control at the onset of the game.
After Yale corralled the opening tip, an errant pass from Bulldog sophomore Nick Victor led to a layup for junior forward Steve Moundou-Missi. On the team’s next possession, Chambers threaded a pass through two defenders to Casey, who slammed the ball home.
One missed Bulldog shot later, and Saunders was skipping through the lane, laying the rock into the hoop to give his team a 6-0 lead.
And so it continued.
Despite Sears scoring 28 of the Bulldogs’ 58 points, Yale found itself unable to stop either the Crimson’s penetration or its sharpshooting from deep, and Harvard’s first half run was capped off by consecutive three-pointers from co-captain Brandyn Curry.
Three players scored at least 14 points for the Crimson—with Chambers leading the pack at 17—while only Sears scored more than eight for Yale. The forward tallied 28 points and 13 rebounds, going 11-of-16 from the floor. It took over 10 minutes for a member of the Bulldogs not named Sears to put the ball in the hoop.
“[Sears is] as good as anyone in our conference,” Amaker said. “He’s an incredibly tough matchup for anyone and he has performed like that all season. We couldn’t stop him…. He’s one of the better big guys in the country that you could possibly have with his ability, athleticism, and skill level.”
“I’m not intelligent enough to give a good enough adjective [to describe Sears],” Yale coach James Jones added. “I am in awe of what he is able to do. I think [the rest of] our guys watch him too much because he is so dominant.”
Perhaps the most poignant moment of the night occurred with 46 seconds to go. As Chambers sunk two from the charity stripe, the Crimson fans in the rafters began their “I Believe” victory chant. The Bulldogs took the ball down the court, and dished it to junior guard Javier Duren, who laid the shot up. Amidst the cheers, Casey swatted the ball away from the hoop and across the floor, straight to Saunders.
Two Harvard possessions later, the team became the first in the country to nab an invitation to March Madness.
“You couldn’t ask for a much better [end to the season],” Curry said. “The last time we were [in this gym] playing for a championship we lost, and it means a lot to come back after everything and win in this place.”
—Staff writer Juliet Spies-Gans can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.