The No. 14 Harvard Crimson won the school’s first NCAA tournament game in history in the West Regional on Thursday by defeating No. 3 New Mexico, a top-five team in many computer rankings, 68-62 with a combination of smarts and toughness.
Harvard head coach Tommy Amaker put together a defensive plan that stifled New Mexico’s Tony Snell, who scored nine points on four of 12 shooting. Harvard also took Mountain West Conference player of the year Kendell Williams completely out of the game, rendering him ineffective with 8 points on just one of six shooting.
Alex Kirk, who scored 22 points for the Lobos, conceded the team with Ivy League smarts smacked them around aggressively.
“They punched us first. They wanted it more than us tonight,” Kirk said. “It hurts, but congrats to them.”
For Harvard, Wesley Saunders scored 18 points, Kenyatta Smith, despite playing most of the game in foul trouble, scored 10 points and helped–to the best extent possible–neutralize some of New Mexico’s big men in key moments down the stretch. Siyani Chambers, a former Mr. Basketball in Minnesota, had seven assists and was a stabilizing presence in Harvard’s motion offense. And Laurent Rivard scored 17 points and made 5 of 9 three-point attempts to prevent New Mexico from ever making a serious run to put the game out of reach.
Amaker said his team wanted to “put a little game pressure on New Mexico,” and Harvard did so with a scrappy defense and by limiting the number of touches New Mexico’s dynamic offense would get by methodically running time-consuming sets on offense that frustrated New Mexico’s defenders who had to chase Harvard’s players around for 25-30 second stretches.
No player on Harvard was chased around more than Rivard, whom Amaker said was now the best three-point shooter in New England after Ray Allen left the Boston Celtics for the Miami Heat.
Rivard said he knew he had the hot hand after Chambers found him for a corner three-point jumper in the opening minutes of the game. He said the win–on this stage–was monumental for the program.
“It means the world to our team,” Rivard said after the game. “Can’t get bigger than that.”
Harvard was not supposed to be here.
Crimson co-captains Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry were suspended before the season started because of an academic–not athletic–cheating scandal that rocked the campus. Harvard’s blue chip recruit is due on campus next season.
But that did not prevent Amaker from embarking on what has been his best coaching job of his career.
Harvard won the Ivy League this season against all odds, and Amaker said the key to Harvard’s success was the squad’s “preparation, passion, and belief.”
“What a sensational, gutsy effort by our team,” Amaker said. “We had to play an execptional game to beat an outstanding team.”
Even though Harvard, a team that could not match New Mexico’s size and athleticism, had trouble containing New Mexico in the paint, they came up with huge blocks and rebounds in key moments of the game to stop New Mexico’s momentum and prevent the Lobos from extending rallies.
New Mexico head coach Steve Alford, who signed a 10-year contract extension and whose team was picked by many to go to the Final Four, said the team dodged many close encounters this year but could not do so on Thursday night.
“I want to commend Tommy and his staff,” Alford said. “We’ve dodged this bullet a lot this year … but we weren’ table to dodge that bullet tonight.”
New Mexico, which plays in altitude, seemed to have all the advantages, and may have been looking forward to a potential showdown with No. 6 Arizona, a team Harvard will now play on Saturday.
Amaker said this has been a “tremendous season” that has been as rewarding as any because of what the team has “had to overcome.”
Harvard will be a heavy underdog against Arizona, a team that can run any team in the country out of the gym on any given night. But Amaker may have bigger plans to turn Harvard’s basketball program around.
Harvard’s upset–on the national stage–will take Amaker a few steps closer to taking Harvard’s program to a point where wins over top teams may be expected.
Houston Rockets point guard Jeremy Lin, Harvard basketball’s most famous alum, exuberantly tweeted what many Harvard alums were feeling when the final seconds ticked off the clock: “YYYYYEEEEESSSSSSSSS!!! HARVARD winssss!!!