Harvard Hardwood, the Harvard Magazine basketball report
On a wintry day in 1946, more than 15,000 spectators crowded into the old Boston Garden to watch Harvard and Yale compete in one of the most important college basketball games of the season. For one thing, it was Harvard-Yale, basketball’s version of “The Game.” More important: the contest would determine whether the 7-2 Crimson or the undefeated Bulldogs would qualify for the NCAA tournament.
As Don Swegan ’46, one of three surviving members of that Crimson squad, recalled in a phone conversation on Sunday, the Bulldogs stormed out to an early lead. But thanks to a strong second half, the Crimson captured a 39-37 win and Harvard’s first NCAA tournament berth.
On Saturday, Swegan sat in the stands at another historic venue, the Palestra, the University of Pennsylvania gymnasium that is often called the “cathedral” of college basketball, and watched as history repeated itself. Once again, Harvard and Yale were squaring off (this time in a one-game Ivy League playoff) with a ticket to the NCAA tournament at stake. And as was the case 69 years ago, the Crimson mounted a second-half comeback to secure a two-point victory, 53-51.
But unlike Swegan’s squad, Tommy Amaker, the Stemberg Family head coach of men’s basketball, and his players—particularly Harvard’s seven seniors—have been here before. The Crimson is returning to the NCAA tournament for the fourth consecutive year, and has won its opening-round contest during the last two seasons. Thus, this Crimson team, which earned a 13-seed in the NCAA’s West Region, will not be content just with reaching the tournament. Instead, Harvard will be looking to pull off the biggest win in program history—an opening-round victory over the fourth-seeded University of North Carolina (UNC)—and then mount a run deeper into March Madness.
Following Saturday’s narrow victory over Yale, and after an exhausting month, does the Crimson have the talent, tenacity, and offensive consistency to progress?
A “Terrifying” First Half
If the Crimson wants to unseat the five-time national champion Tar Heels, it must avoid repeating the offensive debacle that marred the first 20 minutes of the contest with Yale. After a jumper by Wesley Saunders ’15 put Harvard ahead 8-0 less than four minutes into the contest, the Crimson tallied only 15 points for the rest of the half in a display that Liz Altmaier ’10, a former Harvard women’s basketball player who attended Saturday’s contest, characterized as “terrifying.”
The disjointed effort was in part a byproduct of the Bulldogs’ stout defense, but also stemmed from the Crimson’s tentativeness. As has frequently been the case this year, Harvard failed to get the interior penetration and touches upon which Amaker’s motion offense depends. Instead, the players often appeared content to pass the ball around the perimeter—as well as reluctant to shoot—and ended up settling for too many contested opportunities late in the shot clock. As a result, Harvard trailed 27-23 at halftime.
“He Ate His Wheaties”
In the second half, Saunders put Altmaier and the rest of the Harvard faithful at ease. After tallying only four points before intermission, he exploded for 18 points, including 11 points in a 13-0 run midway through the half that enabled Harvard to turn a 32-27 deficit into a 40-32 lead. As Altmaier said of Saunders’s second-half display, the senior (who was recently selected to the All-Ivy first team) most definitely “ate his Wheaties.”
Yet Harvard’s run—and Saunders’s scoring—could not win the game by itself. After Harvard took its second eight-point lead of the afternoon, Yale mounted a comeback and tied the game at 51 with 55 seconds left. Then, with just under 15 seconds remaining, and the score still tied, Saunders held the ball at the top of the key and began to drive, prompting the Yale defense to collapse in a sequence that was eerily similar to the final play in Harvard’s early-season loss to Holy Cross. But this time, instead of attempting an off-balance shot (as he did unsuccessfully against the Crusaders), Saunders kicked the ball out to classmate Steve Moundou-Missi, the Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year, who calmly swished the game-winning jumper.
That sequence showed that this was not the team that lost to the Crusaders in November, or even the squad that took the floor in the first half against Yale. For one thing, Saunders was the aggressor, a far cry from the first 20 minutes when, as Altmaier noted, his eyes were always looking to his teammates, not the basket. And someone other than Saunders stepped up, too. In the team’s previous losses, Saunders almost invariably shouldered the scoring burden by himself, and his teammates seemed content to watch him do so. But during the last 10 games, Moundou-Missi has made multiple critical jumpers and at times has even surpassed Saunders in scoring. This increased offensive balance is a key reason the Crimson bested an extremely strong Yale team 53-51, securing its return to the NCAA tournament.
A Shot at History
If Moundou-Missi and his teammates are to have a shot at defeating North Carolina, they will need not only to sustain that tenacity and balance; they will need to be better. This is in part because, as Amaker said on Monday, the extremely athletic Tar Heels—fantastic rebounders who reached the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament final—represent a “monumental challenge.”
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That challenge is heightened because the Crimson has been on what Amaker previously called an “emotional rollercoaster” during the past two weeks. First, the team had to wait, as the coach said, what seemed like “forever” during a hype-filled week before their home game against Yale on Friday, March 6, a 62-52 loss. (The Crimson had defeated the Bulldogs, 52-50, on February 7 in New Haven.) Then, after upending Yale by two points this past Saturday, the Crimson had a 24-hour turnaround before Sunday’s televised NCAA Tournament selection show—for which the Crimson hosted a viewing party at the Murr Center’s Lee Family Hall of Athletic History. Now they have just three days to prepare for Thursday night’s match-up with North Carolina in Jacksonville. Not surprising, then, that one Harvard player yawned while waiting for the tournament pairings; that just before Sunday’s press conference, another asked what day of the week it was; or that Amaker’s voice was raspy while he spoke to members of the news media.
Nonetheless, Harvard players can draw energy from the opportunity before them. As momentous as Harvard’s victories over New Mexico and Cincinnati were in the last two NCAA tournaments, a win over UNC would be the most important in program history. By any objective standard, the Tar Heels have had one of the best programs in college basketball in recent decades, and if the Crimson were to defeat them in the NCAA tournament, it would vault Amaker’s squad that much closer to the upper echelon of the sport.
Saunders, Moundou-Missi, and their classmates came to Harvard to make history. By leading the school to four consecutive NCAA tournaments and its first top-25 rankings, they have done so. But 70 years from now, they don’t want to reminisce just about making NCAA tournaments, or even advancing to the Round of 32. This group has embraced Amaker’s vision of becoming one of the best teams in college basketball, and the next step is advancing to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament. On Thursday evening, they will have their final opportunity to accomplish just that.
- On Sunday, Don Swegan ’46, who was driving home from the game with Vince Lackner ’72 (another former Harvard player), spoke by phone with Lou Desci ’47 and Jack Clark ’47, the two other surviving members of the ’46 NCAA tournament team—the first time all three had spoken together since graduation.
- The final score in the Harvard-Yale game (53-51) was eerily similar to the other contests between the two schools this year: a 52-50 Harvard win in February and a 62-52 Yale victory earlier this month in which Harvard trailed by only four points with less than two minutes to go. The outcomes—and in particular Harvard’s nearly identical scoring outputs—demonstrate the parity between the squads. Along with a double-overtime victory by Harvard’s hockey team in the quarterfinals of the Eastern College Athletic Conference tournament on Sunday in New Haven, these hotly contested matchups have also helped expand the Harvard-Yale rivalry beyond traditional sports like crew and football. As Dick Friedman ’73, Harvard Magazine’s football correspondent, observed, the Harvard-Yale football, basketball, and hockey competitions this year each came down to the final play of the season.
- In North Carolina, Amaker faces a program with which he is intimately familiar. When he was a player and assistant coach at Duke, North Carolina was his team’s archrival. The Harvard head coach broke into a broad grin when the tournament pairings were announced.
Check back at harvardmagazine.com for an update on the Harvard-UNC game on Thursday.