While the Harvard men’s basketball team stayed close to home in the final week of 2011, traveling crosstown to face Boston College and hosting St. Joseph’s, two Ivy League foes took up a different strategy.
The Quakers’ first southerly opponent was Davidson College, a small private school located just north of Charlotte, N.C. The Wildcats program was put on the map by Stephen Curry, who led the school to an Elite Eight appearance in the 2008 NCAA tournament. While Curry has moved on to the NBA, Davidson remains strong. The team upset then-No. 12 Kansas on the road 10 days before facing Penn on Dec. 29.
The Red and Blue gave the Wildcats a struggle and was ahead 33-30 entering halftime. But Davidson proved too much to handle, taking the lead on a 10-2 run to start the second half. While Penn would cut the lead to three with a minute to go, it would never regain an advantage, eventually falling, 75-70.
That same night, the Bulldogs battled Wake Forest just an hour up the road in Winston-Salem, N.C. The Demon Deacons were projected to be one of the worst teams in the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), though most experts have picked them to finish ahead of likely cellar-dwelling Boston College.
While the game was important for a Yale team seeking to prove itself against big-time competition, the match was doubly special to junior Michael Grace. Grace is a Winston-Salem native with two high school teammates now on Wake Forest’s roster.
Nearly 100 friends and members of Grace’s family were in attendance for what would be a thrilling finish. Down 19 points with 11:34 remaining, the Bulldogs continued to fight but ended up one point short. A three-point shot with seconds remaining was not enough as Yale lost, 73-72.
The Bulldogs didn’t have time to hang their heads as they traveled to Gainesville, Fla. to take on then-No. 10 Florida on New Year’s Eve. The Gators were no more rested after losing to Rutgers in double-overtime on the road two days prior.
Coming off of its worst performance of the season, Florida bounced back strong and rolled to a 20-point victory, 90-70. The Bulldogs jumped out to a 9-0 lead but could not keep up with an uber-talented Gators squad despite 26 points and 15 rebounds by Yale senior Greg Mangano on the night.
The Quakers faced a similar fate in their matchup with then-No. 5 Duke a night later. Playing at Cameron Indoor Stadium, one of the loudest arenas in the nation, the Blue Devils took an early 20-4 lead and never looked back, crushing Penn by 30, 85-55.
While the two Ivy squads returned north empty-handed, their four contests provided experience playing strong competition in hostile arenas that will be invaluable during conference play and beyond.
In recent years, it has become increasingly difficult for Ivy League teams to schedule these types of tests. BCS-conference schools have become wary of scheduling strong mid-major competition as the matchups present lose-lose situations. If the heavy favorite loses, it’s devastatingly embarrassing and potentially costly for a bubble team in March. But if they win, the victor has only done what it was supposed to do and doesn’t gain much of anything.