SPOKANE — For 18 seconds on Saturday, it was happening. Harvard owned basketball, too.
The school that churns out U.S. presidents, Supreme Court justices, billionaire CEOs and Nobel Peace Prizes was taking a serious run at altering the discourse on this year’s NCAA tournament, as well.
Harvard guard Laurent Rivard made a 3-pointer from the corner, looped his thumb and finger together around his eye — the “3-point goggles” — and flashed a determined glare toward a group of Crimson fans in the stands who were coming unhinged with 7:12 left in the game. Someone in the Harvard nation tweeted: “rooting for the 1 percent.”
The Ivy Leaguers had overcome a 16-point deficit to take a two-point lead over Michigan State, a team that always comes up big on college basketball’s biggest stage.
The next time down the floor, Spartans guard Travis Trice came back with a 3 to put his team back in the lead. A few minutes later, Michigan State was out of danger — not by much, though — on the way to an 80-73 victory that sent Harvard back home, but not without making a statement.
“We showed everybody that we can come all year and play with the best,” sophomore guard Siyani Chambers said.
Led by a career-high 26 points from Branden Dawson, the fourth-seeded Spartans (28-8) moved onto the Sweet 16 for the 12th time in the last 17 seasons. They’ll play Virginia or Memphis next Friday at Madison Square Garden.
A lot of fans thought Harvard could win its first game against Cincinnati. But even President Obama had picked Michigan State to eliminate his law school on the way to the national title.
Yet even in a loss, Harvard hoops proved it is here to stay.
“I thought our kids competed,” coach Tommy Amaker said. “We knew we would.”
The program Amaker took over seven years ago was in its third straight NCAA tournament and two nights removed from only the second March Madness win in school history. Last year, the encore was a disheartening 23-point loss to Arizona. This time, it was something much different against an opponent that may have been even better.
“That’s one thing Coach Amaker talks about, that we’re not just built for the Ivy League, we’re built to go past that,” junior forward Jonah Travis said. “That’s one of our main goals, to match up with teams like that and beat teams like that.”
Over a comeback that lasted 7 minutes, 31 seconds, 12th-seeded Harvard (28-5) pounded on Michigan State, plain and simple.
The rally started with a pair of 3-pointers by Brandyn Curry and continued relentlessly. The Crimson grabbed almost every loose ball, kept hands in Michigan State’s flustered faces. Steve Moundou-Missi, the 6-foot-7 forward who was supposed to contain Michigan State’s 6-10 power player, Adreian Payne, simply outplayed him.
When Moundou-Missi tipped in a missed shot with 10:22 left, Harvard trailed only 55-53. At that point, both the chant ringing from the Harvard stands — “I believe that we will win” — and the sign one of the fans was holding — “We always bring our A+ Game” — was more than just good PR.
Michigan State called a timeout but Tom Izzo’s play produced an offensive foul. Moundou-Missi missed a layup, but Wesley Saunders, who led the Crimson with 22 points, scrambled for a loose ball and dunked to tie it.
About 90 seconds later, Rivard hit his 3 to put Harvard ahead 62-60.
“You look down the other end, and I’ve got a good friend that’s down there,” said Izzo, who goes back more than 20 years with Amaker. “I kept saying, ‘They’re going to come back. You better realize that.’”
They did. Yet somehow, once the Spartans lost the lead, they started playing better. Harvard’s lead lasted just 18 seconds.
After Trice put the Spartans in the lead, Rivard missed a 25-footer — part of a 2-for-5, seven-point night in which he was shut down by Gary Harris. Payne came back with two free throws and Harris made a 3 of his own, part of an 18-point, five-assist night that complemented his great defense.
“It was a scare and we need to give credit to Harvard,” Michigan State guard Denzel Valentine said.
Payne followed his career-high, 41-point night in the opener against Delaware with a modest 12 points, but the final lesson in this one was all the ways Michigan State can beat you.
Dawson had matched his previous career best of 20 by halftime. When he took a pass from Trice for a layup with 1:54 left, he gave the Spartans a 73-67 lead.
Harvard pulled within four and Moundou-Missi blocked Keith Appling’s shot on the other end. But the Spartans won a scramble for the ball and Amaker stomped his foot and shouted “Dammit.”
The game was pretty much over by then and both teams had proven a point: Harvard can play with anyone and Michigan State can handle a legit challenge.
“A wonderful effort by our team,” Amaker said. “But you have to play perfect basketball to pull a game out like that.”