Road to the Final Four, Day 2

Published by Brian A. Campos on March 18, 2012 at 3:12AM

Freshman Steve Moundou-Missi tries to dribble past a leaping Jeffery Taylor in the Harvard men's basketball team's 79-70 loss on Thursday to Vanderbilt in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.—What a game.

I’m going to be honest, this would be a much more angry post had it not been for the final half of the second period. With Harvard down by 10 at the break, I kept telling my friends and myself that our team could still make a comeback, that it wasn’t over. But once the half resumed and the Crimson made silly mistake after silly mistake, I thought, damn, what a poor showing. After a couple of years of strong performances in the NCAA tournament from the Ancient Eight, this was pretty disappointing. Then Laurent Rivard happened.

The Canadian had the hot hand in the second half to keep Harvard alive, finishing the game six of seven from beyond the arc. He made me believe that it was still possible to overcome what had once been an 18-point deficit. And the Crimson came quite close to accomplishing the feat—it was a two-possession game when destiny decided to make it impossible for Harvard to come out victorious.

Even though Vanderbilt played a good game and deserved to win, let me emphasize how terrible the officiating was. Charges were called when they weren’t charges; flagrant fouls were missed. The final two minutes were devastating to watch. The ref failed to call a blatant charge on Oliver McNally. On offense, McNally made a scrappy play to salvage the possession but the ref failed to realize that the Commodore was out of bounds when the senior threw the ball off his opponent’s body. This made it easy for Vanderbilt to do its part and close out the game. The final score did not reflect how close the game got, but hats off to the Commodores. They played a balanced game with fewer mistakes.

We put up a fight—one that almost gave me a heart attack and had my legs literally trembling—but I just wish that level of play and intensity had come sooner. This was most certainly a game we could have won with less silly turnovers and without the foul trouble. Harvard will also need to work on shooting the ball in the offseason. Watching the guys warm up was disconcerting—I’ve never seen so many bricks in my life. There was one player though that caught our eyes—we counted at least 10 three-pointers that freshman Max Hooper made without a miss. The Crimson has its work cut out for it to finally reach the next stage of its development—it will require hard work, no doubt about it.

Most importantly, congratulations to the seniors on the team. You guys impacted the program in a big way and accomplished things that 66 years worth of players tried to do. Thank you for everything.

Okay, I’m done with my game analysis. As for the experience, it once again validated why I made the trip despite breaking the bank. UNM’s “The Pit” hosted fans from all over the country, creating an exciting environment that never quieted down. We went early to catch the first game between Montana and Wisconsin, and though I was not invested in either team, the crowd made it super fun to watch. It was like a home game for all teams involved. There were also a lot of Albuquerque residents, some watching the doubleheader and many crowding around the flat screens stationed around the arena to follow what was going on with their beloved Lobos. When UNM finally edged out Long Beach State during the Harvard game, the crowd erupted into huge cheers for the hometown team. I genuinely celebrated for Los Lobos—Albuquerque had been really kind to us, so it felt right.

There’s not much to say about the Montana-Wisconsin game, but maybe that the result was not indicative of how close it actually was for most of it. Also, a huge thanks to the NCAA for paying for the cheerleading teams—particularly Montana’s—to come. And the bands added a lot to the atmosphere as well; there were some cool songs played and dance routines.

Food was expensive, but that was expected. New Mexico makes a tasty angus burger, I must say. And the chili is pretty damn good (in Colorado too).

As the first game wound down, the section of Harvard alumni grew. My friends and I were among the only students there, but it was great to see how many people care about Harvard men’s basketball after graduation. There were former basketball players—notably Donald B. Swegan, a player from the 1946 team that last made it to the Big Dance—parents, Friends of Harvard Basketball, the athletic director, alumni from around the area, faculty, etc. It was awesome to meet so many cool and accomplished people.

I did find it a little weird to be sitting down at a basketball game after spending a season jumping up and down in the student section and yelling my voice away. Sitting down takes quite a bit away from the experience, so eventually I lost regard for those around me and evoked my inner Hugh Archibald. By the end of it all, I lost my voice, but it was totally worth it. Makes me wonder what it would have been like to have the tournament come back to Boston. That would be a crazy time.

After the loss, I went with my friend’s family to the Harvard reception at a nearby hotel, where Crimson coach Tommy Amaker and his team arrived shortly after their press conference to receive a standing ovation from the room full of alumni. Athletic Director Bob Scalise honored Amaker in the center of the room, and Amaker did the same for the seniors on the team and proceeded to thank the band and cheerleaders for their efforts. Our friend Swegan was given witty customized T-shirts as gifts, and former players from the 1950's received some as well. It was an emotional ceremony and very well deserved.

That gathering marked the end of Harvard’s run in the NCAA tournament for the first time in 66 years. Bittersweet, yes, but we finally took the first steps towards an eventual NCAA championship (knock on wood). As Amaker implied during the small ceremony, hopefully we’ll be back next year, and if the NCAA is a little kinder to Harvard and places it somewhere near home, I’ll definitely be there too. After this experience, I would encourage everyone to do the same.