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Sports

Harvard Upsets Cincinnati in NCAAs

3.20.14

In the NCAA basketball tourney, Agunwa Okolie handles the ball for Harvard. The Crimson will face Michigan State on March 22.

In the NCAA basketball tourney, Agunwa Okolie handles the ball for Harvard. The Crimson will face Michigan State on March 22.

Photograph courtesy of Harvard Sports

The “I believe…that we will win” chant, traditional in Lavietes Pavilion when the Crimson hold a convincing late-game lead, broke out at John Harvard’s Brew House in Harvard Square late in the NCAA tournament game. The belief proved justified. The twelfth-seeded Harvard men’s basketball team hung tough to the very end, closing out favorite Cincinnati, the number-five seed in the East, 61-57, and giving the Crimson an NCAA tournament win for the second time in two years. (A year ago, Harvard upset the University of New Mexico, 68-62, to notch the Crimson’s first-ever win in the NCAA’s March Madness extravaganza.)

This year’s contest, played 3,000 miles from Cambridge in Spokane, had few Harvard supporters in the stands, but an enthusiastic following back home. With a 79-19 record since the 2011-12 season, the Crimson entered the game with the twelfth-best record in the NCAA across that span. They had also just completed a four-peat of Ivy titles. Though underdogs, Harvard came out playing tenacious defense, while the Bearcats started shooting coldly, at one point missing a dozen straight field-goal attempts. Harvard looked looser on the floor; they seemed to be having fun, while Cincinnati, with perhaps more to lose, appeared tighter.

An early jam climaxing a trot down the lane by big man Kyle Casey ’14 brought a roar from the Brew House loyalists. From a 6-6 tie, Brandyn Curry ’14 and Siyani Chambers ’15 threw in unanswered three-pointers to open up a 12-6 Harvard lead. (See the profile of these two point guards here.) The Crimson profited from shots beyond the arc; Curry’s long jumper brought the score to 19-11 and captain Laurent Rivard ’14 sank the first of his three three-pointers to make it 22-13. Wesley Saunders, the Ivy League Player of the Year, threw one down for a 26-23 lead; Rivard’s second deep jumper had brought it to 29-15, his third to 34-29. Strong defense, solid rebounding, and outside shooting combined to give Harvard a seven point 36-29 lead at halftime. The Bearcats’ top scorer, Sean Kilpatrick, meanwhile, had put in 13 points. In his midgame TV interview, coach Tommy Amaker voiced the need to cut down on turnovers (Harvard had six in the half to Cincinnati’s two), but liked what his defense was doing. The squad did cut their turnovers to three in the following stanza.

In this kind of game, the opening minutes of the second half are telling. The Crimson rose to the occasion, making a statement at the outset that they weren’t letting down or going away. They maintained their lead in the opening minutes and went up by nine, 42-33, when Steve Mondou-Missi ’15 threw down a dunk with just over three minutes elapsed. Saunders executed an artful underhand move beneath the hoop for a layup that made it 48-43. A layup by Evan Cummins ’16 made it 50-43, and Harvard had preserved its seven-point advantage through half the closing period. Mondou-Missi batted away a Bearcat shot with 8:05 to go, keeping an eight-point edge intact. Nonetheless the Cincy team gamely battled back to 54-53 with about three minutes left, keeping the Brew House rooters on edge. A jumper by Chambers with two minutes to go opened a three-point lead; then a crucial steal by Saunders with 42 seconds left returned the rock to Harvard with a narrow three-point lead. Two free throws by Kilpatrick made it a 57-55 game with 29 seconds on the clock, but Chambers soon sank two of his own for 59-55, the four-point margin making it a two-possession game. When sharp defense forced a Cincinnati air ball with only 12 seconds left, the “I believe…”chant broke out in Cambridge.

 

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