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There were moments during the Harvard men’s basketball team’s tilt against third-seeded New Mexico in which the Lobos appeared poised to do what 94.4 percent of ESPN Tournament Challenge brackets predicted—take over its second-round contest and defeat the Crimson. But each time, Harvard, and in particular co-captain Laurent Rivard, had an answer.
The junior sharpshooter connected on five-of-nine shots from long range Thursday evening, contributing 17 points as the Crimson earned its first NCAA Tournament victory in program history, 68-62, at EnergySolutions Arena.
Rivard’s five timely three-pointers bolstered his season total to 79—a new program record—and helped the 14-seed Crimson to its first-ever victory over a top-10 team.
“Sure, it's a cool thing,” said Rivard after the game when asked about his record. “But, you know, what's sweeter is winning as a team and advancing in the NCAA Tournament.”
According to his teammates, Rivard’s impressive performance on college basketball’s biggest stage was far from surprising.
“Honestly, whenever I go to the gym, I always see Laurent in there,” said sophomore Wesley Saunders, who led the Crimson with 18 points against the Lobos, one day after the win. “He's the first one in there, the last one to leave, always getting shots up. It's not really a mystery why he's such a great shooter.”
“[Rivard’s] work ethic is tremendous,” co-captain Christian Webster added. “He puts a lot into it, that's why he gets so much out of it."
After hitting three long-range shots in the first half of his team’s game against New Mexico, Rivard made what may have been his biggest shot of the day with 6:16 to play. Down by one point less than a minute after two Rivard free throws regained the lead for Harvard, the junior’s ensuing triple ushered in a 7-0 run that gave the Crimson an advantage, 59-53, it would hold for the remainder of the contest.
Back-to-back threes from Webster and Rivard had also captured the lead for the Crimson and secured a four-point advantage, 37-33, earlier on in the half.
“It was huge,” said Harvard coach Tommy Amaker after the game, describing his two co-captains’ shooting prowess against the Lobos. “That's a big weapon for us to be able to hit a few shots and gain some confidence. Not only for our team but for those kids individually, as well. We need to have balance, we need a way of going inside and out, not just in the post but driving it in there.”
Rivard knocked down his first trey of the game with 13:56 to play in the opening frame, pushing Harvard to a 7-2 advantage after a jumper from the Lobos’ Alex Kirk cut the Crimson’s initial lead to two. Before the first 10 minutes of the game had elapsed, Rivard added a steal and two defensive rebounds to his three early points.
And after a free throw from Cameron Bairstow once again made it a one-possession game, 13-10, Rivard found the bottom of the net for the second time at 8:08.
Kirk tied up the game at 18 with a little more than five to go in the half. But freshman point guard Siyani Chambers found Rivard behind the arc, and the junior nailed his third look from long range, giving Harvard an advantage it would keep going into the break.
Rivard finished the contest against New Mexico with a pair of steals and five defensive boards, as the Crimson became the then-lowest seed and second-lowest overall to advance to the Round of 32.
“[Rivard] is guarding players that are bigger than us,” Amaker said after the second-round game. “For him to stick his nose in there and to be tough around the basket, it says something about how scrappy and how tough he can become when we need that against bigger players inside.”
It wasn’t the first time that Rivard had come up big for the Crimson when it mattered most.
In Harvard’s NCAA Tournament game last year, the junior tallied 20 points on six-of-seven shooting against No. 5-seeded Vanderbilt, though the Crimson eventually suffered a 79-70 loss.
More recently, Rivard led the Crimson with 17 in a victory over Cornell, 65-56, to seal at least a share of the Ivy League title on Mar. 9—Harvard would claim the outright crown less than an hour later thanks to a Princeton loss to Brown.
After a stellar game on Thursday, Rivard added just one more three before the clock struck midnight on Harvard’s Cinderella story, scoring three points on one-of-six shooting in the 74-51 loss to Arizona Saturday night. The effort pushed his season total to 80 made treys. Harvard—which shot 52.4 percent against the Lobos—came out ice cold against the Wildcats, missing its first 13 shots from the field.
Rivard’s triple narrowed the Arizona lead to 56-39 with just over 10 minutes to go in Harvard’s season. But the Crimson would not pull closer than a 14-point deficit less than three minutes into the final frame.
Still, the weekend marks Harvard’s most successful all-time in NCAA Tournament play.
“It's a dream we have had since we were little kids,” Rivard said after the win on Thursday. “To do it with Harvard on our chest, can't get better than that.”
—Staff writer Catherine E. Coppinger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @CatCopp.
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