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Harvard avenges '2.8' vs. Princeton

2/25/2012

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- This one was more than just a game, more than just another step toward the end goal of an outright Ivy League championship.

This one was about 2.8.

That’s how much time was left on the clock when Douglas Davis hit the shot. The buzzer-beating, playoff-game-winning shot that decided who would represent the Ancient Eight in last year's NCAAs.

Because Davis hit that shot, Princeton got the berth and Harvard was relegated to the NIT. Because Davis hit that shot, the Crimson remained unable to get past the Tigers, their great stumbling block.

So yes, immediate things -- important things -- were on the line for Harvard on Friday night. But ultimately, the Crimson admitted, they wanted this one more because of that history.

Because of 2.8.

“Oh come on, man, what do you think?” senior co-captain Oliver McNally said afterward, when asked what 2.8 meant to him. “That game was brutal, man, it ripped our hearts out. I can’t sugarcoat it at all. It was one of the toughest things I’ll probably ever go through.

“Especially me. It was my man.”

"2.8" has become a rallying cry, a motivational tool. In the weight room. In practice. In games. So of course this one meant more.

“They had kinda been our like speed bump for the last couple of years, especially last year and this year,” forward Kyle Casey said. “So it was a little more than just a game for us. A little something personal.

“We had to throw everything into it tonight to pull it out.”

Pull it out they did, overcoming big deficits in both halves thanks to strong play early from Casey and late from point guard Brandyn Curry and McNally and escaping with a hard-fought 67-64 win.

Casey scored the game’s first five points, including a no-hesitation 3 from the top of the key, and looked like he meant business early.

The Tigers missed their first four shots, allowing the Crimson to run out to an early six-point lead. But after Casey made one of two free throws to make it 16-10 Harvard with 11:10 to go in the first half, an unexpected offensive force hit Harvard.

Patrick Saunders, a senior starter for the Tigers who came into the game averaging 5.8 points and who had scored a season-high 14 in his previous game against Cornell, nailed a 3 off a feed from Davis. Then Davis was fouled shooting a 3 and made two of three free throws. Then Davis found Saunders again for 3.

And just for good measure, T.J. Bray found Saunders for yet another 3. This last long-range shot gave Princeton its first lead of the evening at 21-20 and all the momentum.

The Tigers led by as many as 10 late in the first half, before a late Crimson run brought them to within one at the break 33-32.

Who led that burst for the hosts? Who else but Casey.

“Kyle definitely carried us,” Curry said, “but you know him and Keith [Wright] are the focal points of our team. So he played huge for us, but that’s also what we expect out of him. He’s a great player, works hard and creates a lot of matchup problems.”

The 6-foot-7, 225-pound forward had scored 10 of the first 20 Harvard points early in the half. As if to prove he’s more than just a scorer, Casey did everything else in the last minutes of the half.

He grabbed a defensive rebound on one end, then drew a foul on the other. He cut down the lane to get the ball off the inbounds pass, got fouled on a dunk attempt and drained two freebies. He assisted on a Curry 3, swooped in from the weak side to block a Brendan Connolly layup attempt then came up with a steal that led to a basket to cut the deficit to one.

If Casey carried the Crimson in the first half, Curry picked them up in the second.

The point guard made plays on both sides of the ball, finishing with three steals and six assists. He scored 15 points, eight in the second half, and had zero turnovers.

“I just thought our defense and our will to win tonight was outstanding,” coach Tommy Amaker said. “We had to go to different people in different moments. I thought Brandyn Curry’s play in particular -- he’s been spectacular for us going down the stretch.”

“Brandyn played phenomenal tonight,” said Casey, who led all scorers with 20 points. “I thought he came out and hounded the ball for us, and kinda got them out of their offense a little bit. And then toward the end, they started gearing in on me a little bit more and Brandyn really stepped up and started creating and penetrating and pushing the pace.

“That’s what we need out of our point guard and our floor general, so I thought he stepped up big.”

Curry helped the Crimson overcome a seven-point Princeton lead in the second half, and after Ian Hummer converted an and-1 to put the Tigers back in front, it was Curry who drained a 3 from the right elbow extended to put Harvard back in front.

After the ball hit the twine and ripped through, Curry held his follow-through for a moment. Maybe two (point eight).

The Crimson didn’t trail again, with Casey and McNally locking down the game in the final minute with key free throws after Harvard had been shaky from the line early.

Davis hit a long 3 at the buzzer, but this time the shot didn’t hurt. Harvard had won, and there was no pretending this one wasn’t a little sweeter than some.

“I would’ve taken this type of game over a 30-point blowout, because we’ve been in that situation so many times against Princeton in my four years,” McNally said. “Every single game was winnable. ... To show how resilient we are, and not let those negative thoughts overcome how we played and our attitude, made the win probably more special than if we just totally outplayed them.”

“What a tremendous win by our kids and our program,” Amaker said. “We have the utmost respect for what the [Tigers have] accomplished and how tough they’ve been against us. There’s no doubt about it. It always seems like we’re looking up in some ways and trying to figure out how to get out of a game against them.”

This time, they finally did.

“I try to stay real levelheaded, especially with a game tomorrow,” McNally said, “but to beat these guys in the fashion that we did -- coming back and really staying strong, and guys coming in and helping -- it means a lot. Especially to me, because I took that one real hard last year. I can’t thank the guys enough for helping me get that.

“It’s been really hard, and I hate playing those guys.”

Finally coming out on top against the Tigers helps a little, McNally said, but the real balm for the 2.8 wound won’t come until the Crimson accomplish the goal they couldn’t last season.

Only an outright Ivy League title and the berth in the NCAA tournament that comes with it can completely salve this wound.

And until the Crimson can say they’ve done that, they’ll say something else: 2.8.

Jack McCluskey is an editor for ESPN.com and a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter @jack_mccluskey.