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Harvard keeps cool, regains control of Ivy

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- The PA announcer at Lavietes Pavilion played it cool.

The Crimson desperately needed a win Friday night to keep their hopes of a third consecutive Ivy League title and a second straight NCAA berth alive. And then they would still need help to catch Princeton.

They’d trailed visiting Columbia, the only Ancient Eight opponent to beat them all season prior to a disastrous sweep at Princeton and Penn the weekend before, for most of the first 38 minutes. But led by clutch plays from Steve Moundou-Missi and Siyani Chambers, the Crimson came roaring back and took the lead late.

The crowd was on its feet, still delirious from the Crimson’s charge, when the announcer’s voice piped in.

“Final score: Princeton 66,” he said, pausing slightly, “Yale 71.”

The crowd went wild again. Not only had the Crimson come from behind to secure what would be a 56-51 win over the Lions, but they’d gotten the help they needed and were once again in control of their postseason destiny.

“Seems like another typical night in the Ivy League,” Tommy Amaker joked. “Just really thrilled for us to be able to gut this win out. [We] didn’t play exceptionally well, obviously.”

The Lions sprinted out to a 9-2 lead in the first six minutes of the game as the hosts made just one of their first six shots and turned the ball over twice. The Crimson eventually got their offense going somewhat, cutting the Lions’ lead to three on two occasions, but Columbia led by six at the half, 28-22.

Harvard shot just 1-for-7 (14.3 percent) from behind the arc in the first 20 minutes, while Columbia shot 3-for-5 (60 percent) in the same span.

When the Crimson went in for the half, Amaker let them in on one piece of news: Princeton was also losing at the half, down 12 at Yale.

“Coach did let us know that, just to see if that would give us a little extra drive,” Kenyatta Smith said. “And I think to some degree it did, that and our frustration with ourselves and the way we were playing. We knew we had to get it together. We knew we weren’t playing the way we wanted to play, the way we should’ve been playing.”

Whether it was more the news from New Haven or the knowledge that they weren’t playing up to their own standards, the Crimson were noticeably more aggressive in the second half.

A three-point play by Wesley Saunders and a 3 by Laurent Rivard got them back within striking distance, then Chambers came up with the first of his big plays, making a steal and winning the race to the basket to tie the game.

From there, the teams went back and forth as the time ticked off.

With Harvard down two and less than a minute to go, the crowd was on its feet trying to will a defensive stop. Moundou-Missi obliged, cutting off the baseline on Isaac Cohen’s drive, altering the shot without fouling and then corralling the rebound. The outlet quickly found Chambers, who pushed it hard, found a seam, took the contact and made the layup for an and-1 to put Harvard ahead 50-49 with 40 seconds to go.

“You can’t say enough about Chambers. What else can the kid do for our team this year?” Amaker said. “His minutes, his efforts, his moxie, his savvy, his daring. All those things we’ve seen a lot this year. But at a moment like this, in a situation where we’re down two, and he drives it and gets the foul and makes the bucket and gets the free throw …”

But the game wasn’t over yet, as Columbia advanced the ball and called time with 35.7 to go. Harvard would need to hold onto its one-point lead.

That’s when Moundou-Missi showed up again, reading the inbounds play, easily stealing the pass and going in all alone for a big, two-handed dunk to put Harvard up three and essentially seal the win.

Now 18-9 overall and 10-3 in the Ivy, if Harvard can hold serve Saturday evening against Cornell (13-17, 5-8) they’ll be assured of at least a share of the Ivy title. If Princeton also wins out (at Brown on Saturday, at Penn on Tuesday), there will be a playoff game on Selection Sunday, March 17, at 1 p.m. in the Palestra in Philadelphia.

But that’s for later.

“We tried to come in here not worrying about [Princeton’s] game, we were trying to focus on our game,” Chambers said, “but hearing that they did lose and that we might still get a chance to get a share of the title was very exciting.”

Apparently, the PA announcer isn’t the only one at Harvard who can play it cool.

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