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NOTEBOOK: Men's Basketball Continues Surprising Run

The Harvard men's basketball team topped the University of New Mexico, 68-62, on Thursday.
The Harvard men's basketball team topped the University of New Mexico, 68-62, on Thursday.
By Hope Schwartz, Crimson Staff Writer

SALT LAKE CITY—Though the Harvard men’s basketball team was 2,500 miles away from Cambridge on Thursday night, familiar chants of “I believe that we will win” filled EnergySolutions Arena as the clock wound down.

Playing in front of a crowd of 14,345, the Crimson did what no Harvard team had done before, clinching the first NCAA tournament win in program history.

“I thought that our fans were amazing,” Crimson coach Tommy Amaker said. “Our band, our cheerleaders, everyone was so enthused…. I thought that helped us get momentum.”

Matched up against No. 3-seed New Mexico—a team which many believed was poised to make a run to the Final Four—the Crimson took the lead early and controlled the pace, cementing the 68-62 victory with a pair of Wesley Saunders free throws with 18 seconds on the clock.

The win—also Harvard’s first over a team ranked in the top 10 by the Associated Press—came despite season-long adversity.

After seniors Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry took a leave of absence at the start of the academic year, few were certain about how the team would adapt. Princeton was picked to win the league in the preseason coaches’ poll, and the Crimson’s roster was full of question marks.

But Harvard’s young lineup emerged in non-conference play, with freshman point guard Siyani Chambers running the court and Saunders, a sophomore, putting up big points. When the Crimson beat Princeton at home, it seemed poised to make a title run.

It wouldn’t come easily.

Two weeks later, Harvard fell to the Tigers on the road and was upset by Penn the next night, leaving Princeton in control of the Crimson’s fate. Going into the final weekend of Ivy League play, Harvard was forced to wait and hope as the Tigers dropped both contests and handed the Crimson the Ivy League title, sending the team to the tournament.

Though the Lobos were heavy favorites—considered by some to be under-seeded—Harvard came away with the surprise win and cemented its place in program history.

MAKING IT BIG

At the end of the first half, the Lobos had gone to the line 11 times. The Crimson had yet to draw a shooting foul.

New Mexico used its size and strength inside to create foul trouble for Harvard’s bigs, especially sophomore forward Kenyatta Smith, who finished the first half with three personal fouls. After Smith got his fourth five minutes into the second half, he went to the bench for the next eight minutes.

Smith re-entered the game with seven minutes on the clock and fouled out six minutes later, but during that time he made his presence felt. He added four of his ten points down the stretch—a driving shot on Lobos center Alex Kirk and two free throws—and swatted a Kirk layup that would have brought the Lobos within four.

“He had a huge block that energized our team,” Amaker said. “Those are the plays we know he’s capable of making…. We called on him after sitting for a long period of time and he responded well.”

Smith wasn’t the only one who had to play through foul trouble. Sophomore forward Steve Moundou-Missi had two fouls in the first half and fouled out with 20 seconds to play, and sophomore forward Jonah Travis ended the game with four.

Despite the height difference, the 6’8” Smith and the 6’7” Moundou-Missi showed no hesitation driving on the seven-foot Kirk. The two combined for 15 points on six-for-12 shooting in the paint.

Because of the early foul trouble, Amaker was forced to use his three bigs in rotation and put them back into the game with four fouls—balancing maintaining defensive pressure with keeping his players in the game for as long as possible.

“We were juggling a little bit deciding who we wanted on the floor and saving a certain guy here, saved Yat for that, then Steve, then Jonah,” Amaker said. “Our guys performed well, and we had to talk to them about playing as if they didn’t have four fouls. Sometimes when you’re in foul trouble, you play passive. We needed to maintain a certain aggression.”

REIGNING THREES

In his second consecutive tournament, junior co-captain Laurent Rivard made his presence known.

In last season’s loss to Vanderbilt in the second round, Rivard’s clutch three-point shooting down the stretch kept Harvard in contention, as he led the team with 20 points.

But this year, the guard’s heroics paid off for the Crimson. Rivard opened up the first half hot, contributing on both ends and leading the team with nine points and four rebounds—all on defense. With 14 minutes to play, Rivard received a pass from Chambers on the wing and drained his first three of the night from in front of the Lobos bench—breaking Harvard’s single-season record with his 75th trey this year and putting the Crimson up by five.

Rivard benefited from Harvard’s inside-out strategy, hitting his second triple of the night when Saunders collected two defenders inside the key and fed the ball out to Rivard on the left wing.

“Any successful team has to have balance inside and out, and [the interior] play helped open up things for Laurent and I,” said co-captain Christian Webster, who added three triples of his own. “We were open and they were really unselfish inside.”

After adding one more in the first and another to open the second, Rivard’s final three of the night came with six minutes to play. Kirk hit back-to-back free throws to give the Lobos a one-point lead, but Rivard came back to give Harvard the lead that would carry the team to the end of the game.

While Rivard added 17 points on five-of-nine shooting from the field, Amaker also credited his composure and tough defense as a major factor in the Crimson’s victory.

Down two with just over seven minutes to play, Rivard drew the foul from deep as the clock wound down and sunk two of three free throws to tie up the score at 49. The guard came down with five rebounds and added two steals.

“Because he is such a deep threat from the shot, there are times where he has used the shot fake very effectively,” Amaker said. “He is guarding players that are a lot bigger than he is. For him to stick his nose in there and be tough around the basket, that says a lot about how scrappy and tough he can become when we need that against bigger players inside.”

—Staff writer Hope Schwartz can be reached at hschwartz@college.harvard.edu. Follow her on Twitter at @HSchwartz16.

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Men's BasketballNCAA Tournament 2013