On March 21, 2013, an overlooked, undersized Harvard men’s basketball team took on the highly-touted third-seeded University of New Mexico in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. After 40 minutes of play, the Crimson busted the vast majority of March Madness brackets, taking the favorites down, 68-62. The victory was the team’s first-ever postseason win, advancing it to the third round of the Big Dance. Two days later, however, a talented Arizona team took down the Crimson, handing it a 74-51 defeat.
Months later, when the curtains opened on the 2013-2014 season, Harvard was one of the few NCAA teams whose postseason successes were more memorable than its disappointments. Following the upset victory, expectations for the Crimson were as high as they’d ever been. A program that hadn’t won the Ivy League until 2011 had votes for the AP Top 25; one ESPN expert even picked it for the Final Four.
The Crimson’s season followed the script. Although Harvard dropped its two big road contests—against Colorado and UConn—it was without key players in both games. Against lesser opponents, Harvard took care of business; the team went 26-2 against non-tournament teams and 13-1 against the Ivy League. Its 13-point average margin of victory in Ancient Eight play made it the league’s strongest champion in a decade.
For the Crimson’s efforts, the Selection Committee awarded Harvard with a 12-seed and a date in Spokane, Wash., with the Cincinnati Bearcats. Pundits made Harvard a popular upset pick. CBS analyst Seth Davis made Harvard his “upset lock of the day” and President Obama selected Harvard over Cincinnati in his tournament bracket.
The game was gritty. The Bearcats’ bruising style, which prioritizes long bodies that choke passing lanes, stymied the Crimson offense. Co-captain Laurent Rivard kept the team in the game with a barrage of three-pointers, and Saunders’ defense on Cincinnati senior wing Sean Kilpatrick eventually broke the game open. When the game clock hit zero, the underdog’s 61-57 upset was complete, and Harvard was Cinderella once more.
And so the Crimson found itself in a familiar place: back in the third round of the tournament, and facing a team that was considered bigger, quicker, and more talented than the Ivy League representative.
This time, Harvard was matched up against perennial powerhouse Michigan State—the preseason No. 2 and a consensus favorite amongst experts, Vegas, and the President to win the national title.
It was a matchup of David and Goliath, and, at least for the first half of the game, Harvard and Michigan State’s performances matched what the brackets had predicted. Thanks in large part to the above-the-rim play of Spartan junior forward Branden Dawson, Michigan State took a 12-point lead into intermission. The opening 20 minutes saw a surfeit of Harvard turnovers, Spartan fast breaks, and Dawson alley-oops, recalling for the Crimson memories of the Arizona blowout from a year prior.
However, a change in momentum spurred by an emotional halftime speech from Crimson co-captain Brandyn Curry would prove the game far from over.
What follows is an oral history of the Harvard-Michigan State third-round matchup. The Crimson, which was considered down and out before it even took the court, was playing on the biggest stage in program history. The Spartans, which had reached the Sweet 16 in five out of their last six campaigns, were looking to avoid being the latest giant toppled in a tournament replete with upsets. What ensued was 40 minutes of play that truly typified the madness characteristic of postseason collegiate basketball.
I. TRUE TO FORM
In the 20 minutes prior to intermission, the heavily-favored Spartans painted the key green. Michigan State tallied four dunks and four layups in the opening half, scoring largely off of Harvard turnovers and the ensuing fast break opportunities. Dawson spearheaded the Spartans’ play, notching 20 points in as many minutes. When the buzzer sounded signaling the end of the first half, the Crimson found itself down, 45-33, and just 20 minutes away from ending its season in a manner similar to how it had ended 2013: in blowout fashion.
Siyani Chambers (guard, Harvard): At the beginning of the game, we weren’t as prepared as we should have been. We came out, we were taking forced shots, we weren’t getting back on defense. Their speed and transition game surprised us in the first half.
Laurent Rivard (forward, Harvard): I don’t think we had played a team that athletic, especially [Dawson], their power forward, [all year]. They were so fast. They’d rebound the ball and [Dawson] would be out leading the break…. They knocked us back on our heels.
Tommy Amaker* (coach, Harvard): They put us on our heels right away and then...put us in a big deficit and a big hole.
John Ezekowitz ’13 (attended game in Spokane): The first half felt like it went by in a blur. It mirrored how fast MSU was playing the game.
Steve Moundou-Missi (forward, Harvard): I thought, ‘Here we go again like last year,’ We were [so] happy to be there that we were [emotionally] drunk, and lost sight of why we were there—which was to compete.
Tom Izzo* (coach, Michigan State): We played so well early; one turnover in the first half is a record for us.
Julian Benbow (writer, The Boston Globe): [Those opening minutes] were unbelievable…. [F]or a second, you see Dawson getting anything he wants in terms of layups.... They were contested, but he just jumped higher. He just kept going up. You kind of thought [Harvard] was going to get run out of the gym.
Vince Lackner ’72 (former Harvard player, attended game in Spokane): MSU had some pretty amazing interior passing that let them split through our defense. It struck me as a higher level of basketball than we had ever encountered.
Dan Shaughnessy (columnist, The Boston Globe): The way the game started you really thought “Oh boy, here it comes”.... We were working on a deadline, and I was deep into a “they are overwhelmed, they are outclassed” story.
Christian Webster ’13 (assistant coach, Harvard): The big thing we wanted to focus on coming in was transition defense. A lot of people don’t give [MSU] credit for how they get up and down [the court], and they were able to do that. That’s how we dug ourselves in a hole. You can’t turn the ball over against guys like that.
Rev. Jonathan L. Walton (traveled with team to Spokane): I was depressed, I was stressed out, we were all kind of stressed out.... It felt like it was turning into a dunk contest.
Mitchell L. Dong ’75 (attended game in Spokane): Everybody was like “Oh my God, it’s a fluke that we are here [in the Tournament].” We thought we shouldn’t be there. It was just playing out our nightmare in reality.
David Tannenwald ’08 (freelance writer covering Harvard basketball): I was at John Harvard’s [Brewery & Ale House], and [the first half] was a little bit tough to watch, but also it didn’t feel devastating.... There was a sense—and I think Brandyn said this in a postgame interview—that [Harvard was not playing] its best basketball…. You don’t want to have a performance like that on the biggest stage of the year.
II. 'PLAY LIKE WE KNOW HOW TO PLAY'
Down 12 and 20 minutes away from elimination, Harvard headed into the locker room at halftime with heads low and emotions high. For the seniors, the mentality was now or never: if the Crimson didn’t step up its play soon, their collegiate careers would end on a familiarly sour note—on the wrong end of a lopsided contest. Curry, in particular, felt that something needed to be said in order to change the direction of the game. So he stood up in the locker room and began to speak.
Moundou-Missi: When we got back to the locker room, everybody was mad, everyone was really upset about the way we had played. We knew that a similar thing had happened the previous year [against Arizona], and we knew that [if] we were going to lose again, we were going to lose while competing and competing hard against a really tough team.
Chambers: It was pretty serious [in the locker room]. Guys really wanted to win and we went after each other. We knew what it was going to take and we knew we had it in us, we just had to get it out of each other, and so it was pretty heated, pretty intense.
Moundou-Missi: I remember coming into the locker room, everybody is really quiet, and their faces are really telling of what the situation is. They were outplaying us, clearly, and we were all sitting there and Brandyn as a captain stood up, and the first thing he said is “We do not lose like this. We are not going to lose this game like this.” At the time, everybody’s faces were down, and after he stood up and said that, everybody looked up to him…. It was really emotional, it was a really powerful speech.
Chambers: It was a really serious talk. Brandyn [discussed] how we can be better and how we know that we can be better, and how we had to go out there and show it. It really got us motivated to go back out there and prove to ourselves and prove to everyone else that we’re not an underdog team, and we can actually compete at this level. All we had to do was go out there and play like we know how to play.
Webster: [Curry said] we are not going to look intimidated like we did in the first half.
Brandyn Curry* (guard, Harvard): [It] being my last game...I told the guys that we just need[ed] to fight. We were down in a big hole, and I felt like the first half wasn’t us out there.
Ezekowitz: There was a feeling at halftime that this is a bit like what happened against Arizona, [but] that if we can throw out a run in the first five minutes of the second half, there’s a chance. It felt like the odds of a comeback were low, but it didn’t feel like last year when there was no chance.
Moundou-Missi: The previous year we got our asses handed to us by Arizona, and that wasn’t something we were trying to have happen again.
III. 'THE ENTIRE CROWD WAS GOING WILD'
Despite Curry’s speech, the beginning of the second half saw results similar to those of the opening period. With 15:43 remaining in the game, Spartan sophomore guard Gary Harris sunk two free throws to extend his team’s lead to 16, 52-36. The Harvard fan section was silent, while the Michigan State cheering section was raucous. However, a pair of three-pointers by Curry in a 30-second span shifted momentum from the favorites to the underdogs.
Webster: We always say take it four minutes at a time with the media timeouts. We feel like [if] we can win every segment, then we can win the game. We tried to chip away at it four minutes at a time. We tried to win every segment from then on out once they got up big. We tried to focus on taking it four minutes at a time and being persistent and not doing more.
Moundou-Missi: [Curry’s halftime speech] is why at the start of the second half we had a different mentality coming in. You could see it right away, we were a lot more aggressive, we just weren’t scared to confront those guys, whether in the post or at the perimeter. It was a different mindset in the second half.
Ezekowitz: When the comeback started to happen, it wasn’t an immediate thing in the second half. Brandyn made a couple of threes and then it started. There was a sense of build ing—that we didn’t play our game in the first half. The Harvard team that fans had seen all year didn’t show up in the first half, [but began to in those early second-half minutes].
Benbow: They understood that they were in a hole and they also understood that they were not going to go down laying down.
As the game clock ticked under 12 minutes, Harvard quickly narrowed the gap. Coming out of the under-12 TV timeout, Saunders drove to the basket, drawing the foul on Spartan senior guard Keith Appling. After two made free throws, Harvard fell back into a press. Curry forced an errant pass from Harris, and Saunders deflected the ball into the hands of Moundou-Missi. With Moundou-Missi sprinting up the court, only Michigan State sophomore Denzel Valentine stood between the junior and the basket. The junior went over, not around, the Spartan—throwing down a two-handed dunk that cut the lead to four. What was a blowout was then, suddenly, a battle.
Moundou-Missi: All I remember is Wes deflecting the ball and it was about to go out of bounds. I don’t think I’ve ever run that fast actually, but I saved the ball and I got control of the ball. The only thing I thought about was how the lane was wide open. One defender was coming and he stopped right before the block, and I remember [thinking], “Okay, I’m going to dunk the ball. I’m going to dunk over him.” I rose up and he kind of cleared the lane, and I just went for the dunk—that was it.
Chambers: That was another [big] play. [Momentum] had been on our side, and we just needed a few fast break points to show that we could stay in it.
Moundou-Missi: The only time that I heard the crowd really loud was after that steal. As I dunked it—I almost missed it—I looked over to the other side and saw [former Harvard co-captain] Oliver McNally [’12] going wild, the entire crowd was wild, and that’s when I realized how big [the play] was…. I was dead tired because Kyle was down [with fouls], and [Amaker] only played five guys for the longest time…. [At that point], I was in a rhythm. It just felt natural.
Tannenwald: That was amazing. John Harvard’s was going pretty crazy…. In the second half, they played exceptional basketball. [Moundou-Missi’s dunk] was a powerful moment. [Throughout the game], there was not a sense of panic. In the first half, it felt like they were a little overwhelmed by Michigan State’s athleticism, but I think in the second half what struck me the most is that they looked like any really good college basketball team in the country that was making its run.
Benbow: I think Dan [Shaughnessy] and I were both looking at each other like ‘We are going to have to rewrite our stories.’ Moundou-Missi ran into the [press] table and some girl [spilled] a coffee and we had to clean this up and we were on deadline with coffee all over the place. It was a crazy game.
On the next Harvard possession, a tip-in by Moundou-Missi brought the Crimson within two. The next time down the court, the team went to its junior forward again, who was blocked on the ensuing layup attempt by Spartan sophomore forward Matt Costello. But as Costello prepared to throw the ball upcourt, Saunders intercepted the pass. Two dribbles and he was at the rim, dunking the ball home and tying the game for the first time since tipoff. With nine minutes to go, the game was tied at 55.
Chambers: At that point [of Saunders’ dunk], it was all about needing buckets, quick buckets, and getting another stop on defense. Wesley and Steve’s dunks both came on fast break points, which is what we were trying to get. We were trying to get open shots at the rim…. [Our mentality at that point was to] just keep doing what we were doing: working, getting the stops, giving up one shot only, getting the rebound, pushing it up the floor, and trying to get quick, easy buckets at the rim.
Moundou-Missi: [Right before the basket], I got blocked. I didn’t really see it—I turned my head, and [Saunders] was dunking the ball. That was it. I remember it being a big moment, the crowd was so loud, and we were tied.
Adreian Payne* (forward, Michigan State): We knew that they were going to go on a run. Coach kept talking to us and telling us that they [had done] this before.
Walton: It started trending on Twitter that Charles Barkley said at one point “Michigan State has to decide if it is going to match Harvard’s physicality”...and someone put that on Twitter with the line “This is the first time that this has ever been said about Harvard.”
Michigan State responded to the shot as favorites do, by launching a haymaker. In this case, it was Harris draining a three from outside and finding Dawson two possessions later for a layup. Four free throws, two apiece from Chambers and junior forward Jonah Travis, had brought Harvard within one when Curry stole the ball from an unsuspecting Dawson. Running on the break once more, Harvard had the Michigan State defense where it wanted it—in disarray and with nobody on Rivard. Seeing his co-captain alone in the corner, Curry rifled a pass to Rivard, who waited in front of the Harvard section. The fans were on their feet as the shot left the senior’s hands, and jumping in celebration as it splashed through the net. 62-60. Harvard.
Rivard: I was really excited. At that point. I hadn’t hit a shot yet. [After that basket], we had all the momentum.
Chambers: That was a really big shot in the game. It was a big play. All we needed was a stop after that. [Without that] shot, the game would’ve been a lot different. I think that shot put a lot of pressure on Michigan State to make a play after we did.
Dong: From the ashes we rose. That was one of the most amazing feelings I’ve ever had as a sports fan. I watch a lot of sports, but going from being down by 16 to up two was unbelievable. Crazy.
Gary Harris* (wing, Michigan State): We knew they were going to make a run, because they [were] here for a reason.
James Jones (coach, Yale): People don’t believe that [Ivy League teams] are as good as we are outside of our conference. Last year, New Mexico acted like they did not know who Rivard was, and they didn’t respect him from that level. I don’t think teams at that level respect [his abilities], and I think that hurts them.
Moundou-Missi: Laurent has the ability to always hit the big shot. He is always at the right place at the right moment.... Every time he shoots the ball, we expect it to go in. You can see the entire bench rise up, with three fingers up, always. When he hit that, I was like “Here we go, we have a chance to win this game.” It was a really big moment, a big change of momentum in the game, but it was also a big statement overall that we can compete as an Ivy League team against those power conference teams.
Lackner: [Watching Rivard at that moment] was almost like watching a Babe Ruth or Roger Maris attacking the home run record. Every time he tees it up there is an air of anticipation because more likely than not he is going to make it.
Dong: The fans went berserk at that point, when we caught up and actually went ahead. I’ve never cheered so loud and been such a crazy fan. [McNally] and everybody that was there were completely going berserk.
Tannenwald: The single [word] that comes to mind is “crazy” at John Harvard’s…. You just felt like you were watching a great college basketball game, you didn’t think “Wow, there’s this anomaly, this Ivy League basketball team.” You actually forgot the name on the jersey at that point.
Trice: The thing we knew was that no matter what happened, they were not going to give up—they proved that tonight. When we got up big, they kept fighting.... That’s a great team.
IV. 'IT COULD HAVE CHANGED IT ALL'
But ultimately, Michigan State responded. Following Rivard’s basket from deep, Spartan junior guard Travis Trice drilled a three to put Michigan State ahead for good. From there on out, the Spartans maintained control, and minutes later, clinched the 80-73 victory. While the matchup with Michigan State ended in bittersweet feelings rather than in a bid to the Sweet Sixteen, Harvard players and students, alums and reporters all share the sentiment that the team’s success in the 2014 Tournament was not a one-time occurrence, but rather was a sign of a program on the rise.
Webster: That [Trice three] is everything.... If we get a stop there, it changes everything. [If we had] come down with the ball there and with the momentum we had and with everyone in the arena going for us, there is no telling what happens. If we score, we put game pressure on them, which they had not had in a while. If we could’ve done that, it could have changed it all.
Webster: I have never seen a locker room that distraught. For an Ivy League team to come that close—I know people at Harvard were shocked, but we thought we were good enough and capable enough to make the Sweet Sixteen. We were going into the game not trying to keep it close, but to win.
Tannenwald: Harvard more than held their own, they had every reason to believe that they could win that game in the second half, and Michigan State is one of the top teams in the country. So I think that game was the biggest difference maker [for Harvard’s reputation]…. Going into the Michigan State game, frankly, I was less optimistic [than I was about the Cincinnati matchup]…. But after watching the game, there was this feeling like “Wow, this could’ve happened.”
Moundou-Missi: I think every year we take another step…. We want to keep on moving and do better than we did the previous year, and that’s the goal for next year—to see if we can break through that third round.
Dong: Obviously, [Harvard] is great in lots of academic areas, and we’ve had great achievements athletically, but being in March Madness in basketball, it really brings the community together…. I think we’re not an anomaly, we’re not a one-trick pony, I think this is the sign of a legend.
Tannenwald: I think that Harvard was one of the top 30 to 35 college basketball teams in the country. I think they were a really, really good team. I know this is going to sound crazy, or not that crazy, but I actually think it’s possible for Harvard to make a Final Four run at some point in the next five years. My thinking is if George Mason can do it, then there is no reason to think that Harvard couldn’t do it. There’s no reason to think that Harvard can’t be a Gonzaga of the Northeast.
Andy Katz (reporter, ESPN): The Crimson [is] a legit national player. There should be no reason Harvard shouldn’t consider itself in play for a bid every season and at least one win in the NCAA tournament.
Chambers: [The Tournament run] shows that not only ourselves, but the Ivy League is a league to be reckoned with, and people overlook us, but we’re able to compete with the best of them. Even though we’re a mid-major school, we’re talented enough to go out there and play with some of these top schools.
Tannenwald: In the second half, at the end, it was just two good college basketball teams going at each other. And maybe that’s the bigger point. How good was Harvard? It’s hard to say with specificity, but they were a very, very good college basketball team.
—Staff writers Jacob D. H. Feldman and Andrew Farber contributed reporting to this story.
—Staff writer David Freed can be reached at email@example.com.
—Staff writer Juliet Spies-Gans can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
* These quotes were taken from the press conference immediately following the Harvard-Michigan State game.