Harvard bests Yale, earns NCAA tourney bid

March, 8, 2014
Mar 8
1:37
AM ET
NEW HAVEN, Conn. -- A few minutes before tipoff, the floor of play still empty but the stands quickly filling up, Tommy Amaker stole a glance through a side door.

It was a familiar sight for the veteran coach. Cheerleaders warming up. The band playing. Fans settling into seats, clad in their team colors.

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AP Photo/Jessica HillTommy Amaker talks with PG Siyani Chambers in the first half of Harvard's 70-58 Ivy-clinching win.
But this court was painted in blue, rather than the familiar crimson, and instead of an H at midcourt there was a cartoon bulldog. And if all went well in the next 120-odd minutes, Amaker's Crimson would make more history in a building and a rivalry already steeped in it.

This was Friday night in the Ivy League in March. This was Harvard-Yale at John J. Lee Amphitheater with an NCAA berth on the line.

For any team playing its oldest, bitterest rival in unkind country, some display of nerves is understandable.

The Crimson displayed none. With a raucous, mostly blue-clad crowd bearing down on them, the visitors scored the game's first nine points and sprinted out to leads of 16-2, 20-7 and 36-23 in the first half.

"We talked about how important it was gonna be to get off to a good start here on the road," Amaker said. "We knew how challenging it was gonna be."

Justin Sears led all scorers with 28, but Harvard had three players in double digits and led by as many as 18 in the second half on its way to postseason play for the third straight season. With the 70-58 win, the Crimson claimed the Ivy League title outright and earned the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.

"For us to win the outright title, and I guess we've been told we're the first team that's officially in the NCAA tournament," Amaker said, "it means a great deal. And for the right reasons. For us to represent a great conference, for us to represent our institution and the way these guys have played and put their heart and souls on the line all season.

"I think we've shown that we've been the best team in our league. And that's saying something because we know how tough this league is night in and night out."

Harvard has indeed been the Ivy League's best all season long. Coming into Friday's game, the only blemish on the Crimson's Ancient Eight résumé was a home loss to these same Bulldogs.

So while Harvard-Yale typically doesn't require extra fuel for the competitive fire, the Crimson said that loss added some.

"We were very disappointed in what led to that weekend for us," Amaker said. "And we talked about it, our preparation and our work in practice. I thought we made a concerted effort to regroup and respond. And we've been on a mission since then to prepare the right way.

"We talk about a lot of people want to win, but how many people are gonna really prepare to win. I think we have embraced that, and ran with it."

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AP Photo/Jessica HillSiyani Chambers and Brandyn Curry celebrate after locking up the Crimson program's third straight NCAA tournament appearance.
After the loss to the Bulldogs on Feb. 8, the Crimson have ripped off seven straight wins and six straight by double digits. In four of those games, the Crimson held their opponent to 47 or fewer points.

"We had been talking about 'We have gotta seize the moment, because it's right there,'" Brandyn Curry said. "It was in our control and the only thing we had to do was just keep being us. Just don't be impostors or anything like that. Just play our game, and that starts with defense."

Both teams had forgettable nights in some facets, with Harvard going 14-for-32 (43.8 percent) on free throws and Yale going 0-for-14 on 3-pointers.

But from the floor, things were much more memorable for the Crimson. The visitors shot 56.8 percent for the night, while holding the hosts to just 36.0 percent.

"My message to the team before the game was 'Don't let the moment be too big, do your job and play within the lines,'" Yale coach James Jones said. "We did a poor job of that."

For Curry, the Ivy title and NCAA berth meant a little something extra this season. The senior co-captain sat out the 2012-13 season after being one of more than 100 Harvard students implicated in an academic cheating scandal. So he wasn't around for the historic upset of New Mexico in the Big Dance.

When asked what the win Friday night meant to him, Curry got a little choked up.

"It -- " he started, then stopped. "It means a lot. After going through everything last year, if you could ask us if this is how you wanted to win it, you couldn't ask for much better.

"Especially since three years ago we lost to Princeton here [in the Ivy League tiebreaker game] on the Doug Davis buzzer-beater with 2.8 seconds. So that was the toughest loss. That was the last time we were here playing for a championship. And we lost. So it definitely means a lot to come back and win here."

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