SALT LAKE CITY -- A year ago, Harvard guard Laurent Rivard was in awe just seeing the midcourt NCAA logo; after all, the Crimson hadn’t made the tournament in six decades.
So helping the program to its first tournament victory -- a 68-62 win over No. 3 New Mexico that marked the biggest seed upset by an Ivy League team?
That, he said, was indescribable. Although he tried: “You imagine it … it’s something everyone dreams about,” Rivard said after scoring 17 points and going 5-for-9 from 3-point range, “but it’s a different feeling when it actually becomes real.”
The win seemed improbable for a plethora of reasons: The Lobos (29-6) were bigger (7-footer Alex Kirk finished with 22 points and 12 rebounds), and more seasoned by playing in a conference many considered one of the nation’s toughest. Heck, some even thought UNM was robbed by the tournament committee when it didn’t earn higher than a No. 3 seed.
But Harvard countered with a four-guard lineup that was sharpshooting (52.4 percent overall, including 8-for-18 from 3-point land) and that frustrated Lobos leading scorer Kendall Williams into a forgettable, 1-for-6 night. Led by their tallest starter, 6-foot-8 Kenyatta Smith, the Crimson also aggressively banged with Kirk and 6-9 Cameron Bairstow (15 points, nine rebounds).
“We knew they were going to be tough,” Smith said. “We just had to be confident.”
And they were, particularly down the stretch.
New Mexico, trailing for most of the game, took a 53-52 lead with 6:26 left on yet another Kirk inside move. But Harvard, even with its three bigger guys in foul trouble, countered with a 7-0 run -- beginning with another 3 from Rivard and including a jumper from guard Wesley Saunders (18 points) -- to rebuild its cushion. The Lobos never got closer than four after that.
“For me to see the composure that we had is meaningful to me as a coach,” Harvard’s Tommy Amaker said. “We had the lead. We lost the lead. We had to make plays and to have an answer each time when things got really tight there. We had to make pressure free throws. … But we didn’t wilt or cave in.”
Somehow, the Crimson (20-9) didn’t seem to feel the pressure of being a No. 14 seed on the brink of making history.
“I was just playing in the moment, enjoying the moment,” freshman point guard Siyani Chambers said. “… It felt like, just getting here, was our night.”
Indeed, not long ago it seemed like a long shot that the Crimson would make the tournament at all -- much less advance to the round of 32.
First there were the offseason academic problems that led the team’s co-captains -- Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry -- to withdraw from school.
And although those departures gave Chambers (5 points, 7 assists in 40 minutes Thursday) the opportunity to develop more quickly, the team wasn’t quite the runaway favorite it might have been to dominate the Ivy League -- as evidenced by back-to-back road losses at Princeton and Penn in early March.
Yet the Crimson endured. And prevailed.
And forget about last year’s awe-inspiring NCAA logo. Now, there’s a new daydream: the Sweet Sixteen.
“Before this, we wanted to be the Cinderella story,” Smith said. “And I guess now, we kind of are.”