SPOKANE, Wash. -- Even after a 61-57 win in the second round of the 2014 NCAA tournament -- and wins in consecutive tournaments -- Harvard is still one of the easier teams to poke fun at in the Big Dance. They’re the smart kids playing a rough game, the school from the Ivy League that is allowed into the tournament.
But in his seven seasons with the Crimson, coach Tommy Amaker has put to rest a few of those jabs. And, for the third consecutive season, Harvard has made an appearance in the Big Dance. Before Amaker arrived, the Crimson's last NCAA tournament appearance was in 1946.
In 2012, the Crimson lost in the first round. Last season as a No. 14 seed, Harvard upset No. 3 seed New Mexico -- its first-ever NCAA tournament win.
And on Thursday in Spokane, the 12th-seeded Crimson took care of business against fifth-seeded Cincinnati. Though the 5-12 matchup is one of the most common upsets in the NCAA tournament, Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin was reluctant to call it an upset.
"In my mind, today’s game was anything but an upset," Cronin said. "They’ve got a great team. Tough draw for us. In my opinion, they’re one of the best teams we played all year. They did not catch us by surprise by any stretch of the imagination."
The Crimson took advantage of a slow start by the Bearcats, who opened the game by missing 14 of their first 17 shots, jumping out to a 36-29 halftime lead, which Harvard wouldn’t relinquish in the second half. Cincinnati broke out a full-court press, helping to cut the lead to one with just three minutes remaining, but solid play from sophomore guard Siyani Chambers kept the Crimson on top.
Harvard’s win adds to the argument that this is one of the deeper tournaments in recent history. With Louisville and Michigan State both playing as 4-seeds, several teams having a solid shot at the title and star players starring on some under-the-radar team, this season’s March Madness is sure to hold more games like Harvard-Cincinnati, upset or not.
"In college basketball, you look around, and I’ve heard this before where there really aren’t upsets anymore," Amaker said. "There may be some surprises, but I just think when you’re looking at seeds and if you’re playing this time of year, you’re probably a pretty good basketball team. And I think you have to be lucky and fortunate to advance in this great tournament. And we were good, and we also were somewhat fortunate and lucky, as well."
There might have been some luck in the Crimson’s win, but it was mostly sticking to a solid game plan and playing fundamental basketball. The game as a whole was sloppy -- 23 total turnovers and more than 60 missed shots between the two teams -- but the Crimson looked like the team that better executed its game plan.
Despite Cincinnati being more athletic, Harvard kept the Bearcats out of the paint and stuck with them on the boards, losing the rebounding battle by just one, 34-33.
Defensively, the Crimson held the Bearcats to 37 percent shooting (six percent less than their average) and just five assists (eight less than their average) while keeping star guard Sean Kilpatrick in check most of the game.
"I think that we have become a program that has become relevant in the world of college basketball," Amaker said. "I just think our kids have worked hard, have represented our school in an incredible fashion, and we’re proud to be able to say that we’ve become a program representing our conference that can go on a national stage in a national tournament and be competitive and be a contender, and certainly to win a game or two."