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Despite the Harvard men’s basketball team’s recent success, there has always been one knock against the Crimson: When the pressure is on, Harvard folds.
The criticism is not unfounded. Take, for instance, the Crimson’s 3-8 record in games televised on the ESPN family of networks over the past three seasons. Or look at Harvard’s embarrassing last two postseason appearances: a 93-71 loss to Appalachian State in the first round of the 2010 CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament and a 71-54 defeat at Oklahoma State on national television in the National Invitation Tournament last March.
So with the nation’s attention turned to the Crimson this past week leading up to its first NCAA tournament appearance since 1946, some worried that Harvard would once again fail to show up when the lights went on.
The Crimson’s demeanor when it first took the court at The Pit on the campus of the University of New Mexico for Thursday’s second-round matchup with Vanderbilt didn’t do much to allay those worries.
Even the introductions for the Crimson’s starters didn’t come with the same dose of swagger Harvard fans are accustomed to seeing; junior Kyle Casey’s chest bump with co-captain Keith Wright looked more like a love tap.
The Crimson’s play out of the gates did not help much, either. Junior point guard Brandyn Curry, who entered Thursday’s game ranked 19th in the country in assist-turnover ratio, coughed up the ball twice in the game’s first 2:24. And after hanging around for the first 15 minutes, Harvard quickly began to let the contest slip away.
The 12th-seeded Crimson surrendered a 13-3 run to close out the first half, going into the break down 10, 33-23. And after a six-point swing less than a minute into the second frame—Casey missed a dunk on one end and Vanderbilt’s John Jenkins knocked down an and-one three-pointer on the other—it looked like Harvard was ready to continue its trend of disappointing post-season losses.
Two seasons ago, the Crimson, playing in its first postseason tournament in more than 60 years, opened up a 12-point first-half lead on the road at Appalachian State in the opening round of the CIT.
But Harvard imploded 10 minutes in, losing its advantage before the end of the first half and falling behind by double figures five minutes into the second. The final buzzer brought an end to the 22-point loss, the Crimson’s second-largest of the season.
One year later, Harvard fared even worse in its first NIT appearance. Oklahoma State went up by 10 nine minutes in, and the Crimson was unable to pull within single digits the rest of the way, eventually falling by 17.
So when Jeffery Taylor’s layup with 15:47 to go put Vanderbilt up by 16, Harvard was in a familiar position.
But unlike in each of the past two seasons, the Crimson punched back. Casey knocked down his lone triple of the game with 6:53 remaining, and Curry brought the Crimson within 11 one possession later off a layup.
Thanks to some clutch three-pointers from sophomore Laurent Rivard and some timely free throws from Casey and Wright, Harvard pulled within five, 70-65, with 1:51 to go.
That was as close as the Crimson would get, as Harvard fell, 79-70, but a two-possession ball game with less than two minutes to play against a team fresh off a win over No. 1 Kentucky was more than many expected.
“I was really impressed with the effort that our kids gave to make the game interesting toward the end,” Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said. “I can’t say enough about the fight that we had and the effort that we put forth to stay relevant in this particular basketball game.”
The Crimson fans that traveled to Albuquerque, N.M., certainly were not hoping for just a moral victory, but given the Crimson’s recent postseason performances, perhaps they shouldn’t be too disappointed.
“I think we battled very hard and didn’t just give in when we could have given in,” said Casey, who scored seven of his 13 points in the last 7:28. “We weren’t going to stop fighting until the final buzzer rang.”
And when the NCAA tournament comes to a close, the Crimson’s nine-point loss to an experienced and athletic Vanderbilt team that entered the year ranked No. 7 in the nation might not look too shabby.
“I think they have all the pieces to the puzzle for an outstanding team, as we’ve seen, and certainly to make a deep run here in the tournament,” said Amaker, though the Commodores fell to Wisconsin, 60-57, on Saturday.
So while the Crimson’s first NCAA tournament run in 66 years may have ended faster than you can say “Festus Ezeli,” Harvard fans should remember that Thursday’s game, just like each of the past five seasons, was a step in the right direction.
—Staff writer Martin Kessler can be reached at email@example.com.
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