SPOKANE, Wash.—Cinderella may have been invited to the Dance, but she’s going home early.
After winning its first game in the NCAA Tournament for the second straight year, the Harvard men’s basketball team (27-5, 13-1 Ivy) will once again bow out of the Dance before the Sweet Sixteen. After trailing by as many as 16 against Michigan State (28-8, 12-6 Big Ten), the Crimson’s late second half charge was not enough in an 80-73 loss to the team that the President picked to win the national championship.
In defeat, Harvard coach Tommy Amaker was both quick to praise the Spartans and proud of his team.
“They’re explosive, talented, we knew that,” Amaker said. “But I think we’re a ball club that people recognize [is] a darn good basketball team.”
OUT AND RUNNING
But before the five minutes that Harvard will never forget came 25 it would rather never remember. The Crimson was outscored by 12 in the game’s opening frame, as the Spartans turned the match into a track meet. Leaking out one player after every Harvard shot or turnover, Spartan guards Keith Appling and Gary Harris routinely beat their Crimson counterparts down the court.
However, while Harvard junior wing Wesley Saunders and sophomore point guard Siyani Chambers recovered well, the big men did not. Spartan forward Branden Dawson beat the Crimson frontcourt down the court time and time again, scoring 20 points in the first half on a dazzling array of layups and dunks. Michigan State shot 16-of-19 inside the arc early, dropping down hammer after hammer to bring the capacity crowd to its feet.
“We certainly were knocked back at the beginning…that really put us in the hole, where they got so many transition baskets,” Amaker said.
THE LONE RANGER
At halftime, Amaker adjusted. After putting in his starters to begin the second half, the coach quickly yanked senior forward Kyle Casey after two fouls and two misses in the period’s first three minutes. Casey would not leave the bench for the rest of the half as the Crimson went small, spreading four shooters (co-captains Brandyn Curry and Laurent Rivard, Saunders, and Chambers) around a lone big man.
“It’s been a weapon for us throughout the year,” Rivard said. “It creates a disadvantage for us on the defensive end but also creates a disadvantage for them on the defensive end.”
The small lineups flummoxed the bigger Spartans, who struggled to get forwards Dawson and Adreian Payne (10 combined second half points) going. After turning the ball over once in the first half, the Spartans had 10 turnovers in the second period and recorded zero fast break points.
And as the game slowed to Harvard’s pace, the threes began to fall.
The first, a wing trey from Curry, cut a game-high 16-point Spartan lead to 13. The co-captain’s follow 34 seconds later cut it to 11. The third, a Rivard wing triple that capped a 26-8 run, put Harvard in front for the only time of the evening.
“I thought they responded incredibly well, as you saw, and certainly battled,” Amaker said.