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As sophomore wing Wesley Saunders stepped to the free throw line in Salt Lake City with 17 seconds on the clock, the Harvard basketball team was about to pull off its biggest upset in program history.
The 14-seeded Crimson was up four on heavily-favored New Mexico, the three seed, in the second round of the NCAA tournament, and the neutral crowd in EnergySolutions Arena had gradually thrown its support behind Harvard as the game went on.
With familiar shouts of “I believe that we will win” echoing throughout the arena, Saunders sunk two free throws to hand the Crimson its first-ever NCAA tournament victory.
“The reaction when we got back was crazy. It was like nothing I had ever experienced before at Harvard,” co-captain Christian Webster said. “It was like I went to a big time D-I school, and it seemed like everyone cared about basketball. That was something that we wanted to do here, but I didn’t think it would happen that soon. It was just amazing.”
As surprising as the victory was, Harvard’s road to the tournament, through the ups and downs of rebuilding after losing its four top scorers, was even more unexpected.
On opening night at Lavietes Pavilion, the Crimson took the floor with a starting lineup that featured four underclassmen.
Saunders and freshman point guard Siyani Chambers, who ended the season as the Ivy League’s top scoring duo, combined for 20 points in a win over Division III cross-town rival MIT.
Despite its youth, Harvard emerged from non-conference play with a winning record, including two near-upsets at University of Massachusetts and Saint Mary’s. In its second game, the Crimson fell in Amherst when two consecutive threes by the Minutemen tied up the game and then put them ahead with one second on the clock. The wild game started at 10 a.m. as part of ESPN’s Tip-Off Marathon.
Against California, Harvard relied on tenacious perimeter defense to hold the Bears scoreless from deep, and junior co-captain Laurent Rivard’s 19 points led the Crimson to a win. Two days later, Harvard nearly did it again. The Crimson jumped out to a 14-point lead over Saint Mary’s at the end of the first half but let it slip away as time ran out and lost by one.
Harvard also battled with Memphis on the road, coming back from a double-digit deficit to tie the game late in the second half before eventually losing.
The Crimson opened Ivy League play on the road at Dartmouth and pulled out a 10-point victory after a slow first half, but its Ancient Eight home opener against the Big Green at Lavietes would not come so easily.
Harvard found itself down 10 points with 1:33 to play when Webster stepped up to salvage the game, keeping his team’s conference record intact. The senior went three-for-three from deep in the final minutes to force overtime, where the Crimson secured a five-point victory.
Despite a road loss to Columbia, Harvard remained tied for first place in the league when Princeton lost to Yale at home.
The Crimson had defeated every other Ivy League school by the halfway mark, including big wins at home over Penn and Princeton, fueled by sophomore center Kenyatta Smith combining for 34 points and 16 blocks on the weekend.
But Harvard’s reign at the top was short-lived.
The Crimson fell in back-to-back losses on the road in the penultimate weekend of conference play. At Princeton, the two teams were tied with 90 seconds to play, but the Tigers went on a 5-0 run at the free throw line to close out the game. The next day, Harvard was dominated by the Quakers, who held Chambers to five points and stifled a late game rally.
“We give all the credit to Princeton and Penn,” Crimson coach Tommy Amaker said after the weekend. “They did what they needed to in order to win the basketball game, but we know we can play better and we are confident that, once we get home, we will.”
Going into the last weekend of Ivy League play, Princeton controlled its own destiny. If the Tigers lost one of their three final games on the road, they would likely have squared off with the Crimson in a one-game playoff.
But Princeton fell to both Yale and Brown, and the Crimson won the title outright.
After upsetting UNM, Harvard fell in the third round of the NCAA tournament to Arizona. The Wildcats dominated the Crimson from start to finish, leading by 18 at halftime before extending their lead in the second half. Despite ending its season with what would be a 71-54 blowout, this year’s team goes down as the most successful Crimson squad in history.
“For me, it’s definitely the sweetest one out of the three [Ivy League Championships],” said Webster, the winningest player in Harvard history. “These are my best friends, and for me and Laurent to lead the team to this is unbelievable. I couldn’t ask for anything more.”
—Staff writer Hope Schwartz can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @HopeSchwartz16.
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