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To those in the sportswriting community, Elliott Prasse-Freeman is notorious for snapping off colorful quotes, flashing his trademark grin while speaking his mind more frankly than Harvard coach Frank Sullivan might sometimes care to hear.
But after Saturday’s gut-wrenching, last-second, 67-66 loss to Princeton—the third such loss for the Crimson in as many years—the senior point guard was anything but his usual self.
With a pained and somber stare across the court of an eerily silent Lavietes Pavilion, Prasse-Freeman did his best to graciously get through reporters’ questions.
“I should have shot the ball when I caught it,” Prasse-Freeman said quietly, expressing sincere regret over the game’s final play. “It’s a play that I’ve already run over in my mind a couple of times, and I probably will a couple more from here on out.”
When Prasse-Freeman’s shot cruelly caromed off the backboard, the Tigers again escaped Cambridge victorious, leaving the Crimson’s Class of 2003 winless against the Tigers in their careers.
“I guess we never quite got over the hump with those guys,” Prasse-Freeman intoned matter-of-factly, summing up four years of frustration in one understated sentence.
“We’re devastated,” Prasse-Freeman responded when asked of the mood among the team’s four seniors, who have only four games left in their collegiate careers.
After a pause, Prasse-Freeman continued, mentioning the legacy he and his classmates feared they were leaving to young teammates and the program as a whole.
“I don’t want them to remember us as the guys that couldn’t win the big game,” Prasse-Freeman lamented. “We need to instill the winning tradition in the younger players.”
Harvard is in danger of posting only its second losing season in seven years and potentially its worst Ivy mark since the 1994-95 campaign. Though the program is in its longest stretch of sustained success, Prasse-Freeman’s comments suggest that he and his classmates feel like they are letting down the next generation with nights like Saturday.
But Saturday’s heartrending loss to Princeton was far from an aberrant stain on Harvard’s program. It is exactly what the program has come to embody.
In two weeks, yet another Crimson class will leave a legacy of hope and heartbreak. Like a certain local professional franchise, the Harvard men’s basketball team can always captivate the imagination and thrill the crowd, but ultimately, the magic runs out and the disappointment sets in.
Harvard has certainly won a handful of “big games” in the past few years. Splitting the season series with Penn both last year and the season before is clearly an impressive feat and the 1999 overtime win against the Tigers probably ranks among the program’s greatest victories. But those have been the exception and not the rule.
Those rare moments of serendipitous celebration can often make one forget the far more frequent moments of disappointment. The only Ivy team never to win a league title, the Crimson squandered a golden chance in last season’s jumbled race when it lost a close game at home to Princeton and then slipped up on the road against Yale and Cornell.
The year before, an exuberant and hopeful Crimson squad downed the mighty Quakers at home thanks to the heroics of Dan Clemente ’01, only to suffer a devastating five-game losing streak that was initiated by probably the most heartbreaking moment of them all—Kyle Wente’s desperation buzzer-beater that launched the Tigers to another Ivy crown.
No matter how many foul-pole-hugging Game Six homers the Crimson may hit (witness the two Penn upsets and a miracle comeback against Dartmouth in 2000), its legacy—like the Red Sox’s—will always be one of hope giving way to heartbreak.
But we cannot write off the Crimson as merely an underachieving squad without any clutch players. You need special players and special moments to make you believe in the first place, long before heartbreak can set in.
And we were all believing on Saturday night. Down by 11 with only five minutes left, a Harvard win was the furthest thing from everyone’s minds. But then, out of nowhere, Brady Merchant happened.
The team’s soft-spoken captain—perhaps inspired by the ghosts of recent Crimson heroes Mike Beam ’99, Damian Long ’00 and Clemente—took the game in his own hands. Refusing to let the Crimson go quietly to another disappointing loss, Merchant drained three-pointer after magical three-pointer. The crowd, silent for most of the game, erupted and brimmed with a nervous and expectant energy too electric for words.
Just like that, those damn players were doing it to me again. I found myself believing again—even my goosebumps couldn’t believe it.
After the game, Princeton coach John Thompson III summed up Merchant’s heroics best, quipping that he wants to be Brady Merchant when he grows up. What kid (or even adult) sitting in Lavietes that night didn’t want to be in Merchant’s shoes, leading his team from the depths of defeat to the brink of sublime victory?
Sadly, the newfound hope was only another cruel pretext for familiar heartbreak. With the Crimson trailing by one with mere seconds left, Merchant passed the ball to teammate, roommate and close friend Prasse-Freeman and—well, the rest is history.
But Prasse-Freeman shouldn’t be as hard on himself as he was during the painful post-game interview.
After all, if expectation is the mother of disappointment, then we are only disappointed insofar as we have come to expect great things from our team. And we would never have come to expect great things from the Crimson players unless they were able to make us believe in the first place with all of those improbable, magical moments over the years.
Prasse-Freeman and Merchant shouldn’t worry too much about the legacy they’re leaving behind. It’s tough to swallow the bitter defeats and suffer through heartbreak, but at least they and their classmates were capable of making us believe, if only for fleeting moments of euphoria.
With any luck, their young teammates will realize that and be similarly inspired to “get over the hump” and chase that elusive league title. And if they can’t quite get there and suffer more heartbreak, they can always take solace in the adage that always rings true, especially with the coming of spring in Boston.
There’s always next year.
—Staff writer Daniel E. Fernandez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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