Wesley Saunders scored 18 points and Laurent Rivard made five 3-pointers to help the 14th-seeded Crimson pull the biggest upset in Thursday’s flurry of NCAA tournament games, a 68-62 win over No. 3 New Mexico.
The university where John Adams, Teddy Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy earned degrees was making just its third trip to the tournament — and it had never won — though the Ivy League advanced in 2010 when a Cornell team made the regional semifinals.
Reaction, not surprisingly given the school and the moment, came quickly and from various corners.
“America, we are sorry for messing up your brackets and also your financial system and everything else,” tweeted the jokesters at the Harvard Lampoon.
But this was no laughing matter. And it was anything but a fluke.
The Crimson (20-9) put the clamps down on New Mexico’s Tony Snell, holding him to nine points on 4-for-12 shooting after he dominated in the MWC tournament. They banged inside with Lobos big men Cameron Bairstow and Alex Kirk, whose 22 points provided New Mexico’s only consistent offense.
Mostly, they showed none of the jitters that marked their trip to the tournament last year, a 79-70 loss to Vanderbilt in Harvard’s first NCAA appearance since 1946.
Rivard went 6 of 7 from 3 in that one — played on New Mexico’s home court in The Pit — and was clearly pumped for an encore. He was 5 of 9 this time, with three of them coming in the first half, while Harvard was holding a small lead and, more importantly, answering every surge the Lobos (29-6) threw at them. Rivard finished with 17 points.
“I hit my first one, and you know, you hit the shot and then you keep shooting after that, and then I hit another one, so I knew it was going to be a good game after that,” Rivard said.
Christian Webster was more of a role player last year, but jumped to the fore in 2013; he finished with 11 points and was gesturing after each of his three made 3s, even pointing to his forehead after making one from the corner in the first half.
Yep, these smart kids really can play.
“We battled a really good basketball team in a tough environment,” coach Tommy Amaker said. “I’m very proud of our guys.”
Amaker outcoached his contemporary, Steve Alford, exacting revenge of sorts for the time Alford’s Indiana team beat Amaker and Duke back in the 1987 regional semifinals.
“I commend Tommy and his staff and his players,” Alford said. “They made shots. We dodged this bullet a lot this year and were still able to get wins.”
Based on their regular-season and conference tournament victories, the Lobos were a popular pick to head to the Final Four this season. The school even gave Alford a new, 10-year contract Wednesday that called for a $125,000 bonus for a Final Four trip.
They’ll save the money but feel the pain.
The Mountain West Conference, judged one of the top two leagues in college basketball all season, fell to 1-3 so far this week.
And Harvard — yes, that school we’ve all heard of, but not usually this time of year — is moving on.
The university that gave us Jeremy Lin — are we ready now for Crimsanity? — plays Arizona on Saturday.
“YYYYYEEEEESSSSSSSSS!!! HARVARD winssss!!! hahahahhah i told you…. (hash)threepointgoggles (hash)bracketbusters,” was Lin’s Tweet shortly after the victory.
But this year’s Harvard story is not all about the warm-and-fuzzies.
The team lost its two co-captains before the season began because of an academic scandal that involved more than 100 students.
Amaker, who had plenty of experience in rebuilding projects when he coached a Michigan team recovering from NCAA violations, didn’t wave the white flag. He simply asked his team for more.
In stepped freshman point guard Siyani Chambers, who played like a veteran. He wasn’t great against the Lobos, finishing with five points and seven assists, but he kept his team under control, poised and found open players.
The Crimson shot 52 percent for the game — that’s almost 15 percent better than New Mexico’s stingy defense normally allows. When Kenyatta Smith made an 8-foot, left-handed shot to put the Crimson up 59-53 with 4:40 left, Alford called timeout and Amaker ran onto the court to calm his kids down.
They acted like they belonged down the stretch, making five free throws and hanging onto the ball. The buzzer sounded and they stormed the court like any 14 would after beating a 3. But just as quickly, it was over.