An Historic Upset
With style, panache, and an intelligent game plan executed to near perfection, the Harvard men’s basketball team pulled off the biggest victory in the history of the program on March 21, upsetting the University of New Mexico, 68-62, to record the Crimson’s first-ever win in an NCAA tournament game. Harvard dominated the action from the opening tip and trailed only very briefly throughout the contest, nailing down their first-ever win over a top-10 opponent; two polls placed New Mexico tenth in the country before the tournament. The fourteenth-seeded Crimson, by taking down the third-seeded (in the West Region) New Mexico Lobos, confounded hoops pundits, some of whom were forecasting New Mexico’s big squad appearing in the Final Four, the NCAA’s trademarked term for the semifinalists in its annual basketball tourney.
“What a sensational, gutsy effort by our team,” said head Harvard coach Tommy Amaker afterwards. “I thought we had to play an exceptional basketball game to win against an outstanding team.” He added that “our toughness and our courage carried us through with the belief we had, and the opportunity in front of us.”
The win capped a storybook season for Harvard, which began the year on a discouraging note when co-captains Kyle Casey ’13 and Brandyn Curry ’13, the team’s star players at that time, withdrew from the College for a year, reportedly in connection with the mass cheating scandal in Government 1310. But new stars emerged, like Wesley Saunders ’15, who led the Ivy League in scoring with a 16.5 points per game average, and point guard Siyani Chambers, the first freshman ever selected for the all-Ivy First Team. When Harvard closed out its season with two wins while Princeton dropped two of its last three games, the Crimson were crowned league champions for the third straight year and were headed for Salt Lake City and the NCAA festivities.
In the nationally televised (on the TNT network) contest, the Lobos came out clanging, missing 11 of their first 12 shots, partly due to a tenacious Harvard defense that denied many open looks. Near the end of the first half, TNT color commentator Doug Gottlieb declared that “all the basic tenets of New Mexico’s defense are getting destroyed” as Harvard’s drive-and-kick attack succeeded again and again, and its three-point shooters, particularly co-captains Laurent Rivard ’14 and Christian Webster ’13, did damage from a distance. Harvard led, 31-27, at the half. In the second half, the Crimson stayed with their strategy of holding the ball a long time on offense, patiently moving it around the perimeter until an opportunity to drive appeared, or a look opened up for one of the outside shooters. New Mexico had thrived on free throws all season, scoring 26 percent of their points from the line, but their 70.8 percent foul shooting last night netted them only 17 points to the 16 that Harvard harvested from its 80 percent free-throw shooting.
The Crimson largely shut down New Mexico star Kendall Williams, the Player of the Year in the Mountain West Conference, who finished with 8 points. The Lobos shot only 37.5 percent in the game (versus Harvard’s 52.4 percent), getting their strongest offense from 7-foot center Alex Kirk, who carded 22 points and 12 rebounds. Harvard outplayed them with a more balanced attack that included 18 points from Saunders and 17 from Rivard, who netted five three-pointers.
The historic upset attracted significant media coverage from the Boston Globe, New York Times, and Harvard Crimson; there is also a game summary on the Harvard athletics website. Harvard's next NCAA opponent will be Arizona, on Saturday.