Harvard, the Ivy League school that lost its best two players before the season to – of all things – an academic scandal – epitomized the catch phrase “March Madness” Thursday night, crafting a bracket-busting upset of No. 3-seed New Mexico.
The No. 14- seeded Crimson, led by coach Tommy Amaker, earned a 68-62 first-round victory in Salt Lake City, the first NCAA Tournament win in school history. Somewhere, President Barack Obama, a Harvard graduate, is smiling.
Harvard’s most famous hoops alum, Jeremy Lin of the Houston Rocets tweeted: “YYYYYEEEEESSSSSSSSS!!! HARVARD winssss!!! hahahahhah i told you.”
Amaker’s scheme of milking the clock and using the final seconds to execute their offense worked, as Harvard shot 44 per cent from three-point range. Guard Wesley Saunders calmly scored 18 points, including three key late free throws, and Laurent Rivard made five threes to key the Harvard surge.
“Certainly I feel like it’s been a tremendous season thus far,” said Amaker, the one-time coach at Michigan. “To do it in this fashion, on this stage, against an outstanding team. . . We had to play well and get some help by them by not playing so well at times.
“But it means the world to us, a significant win for us. I talked to (the players) about how meaningful this season has been for me. . . as much as any other time I’ve had in coaching.”
Harvard was not expected to win the Ivy League this season, but it did. Amaker held his team together after its two top players, Kyle Casey and Brandon Curry, were embroiled in a take-home test scandal involving 125 students. They withdrew from school, leaving the team less experienced and talent-deficient.
Still, they made their way to the tournament for the third time in Amaker’s six years and punctuated it with the conference’s biggest upset in March Madness.
Fans at the game could sense something special was happening, and the crowd quickly began supporting Harvard.
“We talked about how if we could pick up some game pressure on New Mexico we could pick up some fans,” Amaker said. “People root for underdogs, but they follow top dogs.”Harvard will be underdogs again when it faces No. 6-seed Arizona on Saturday. Clearly, that is of little concern now.