Historic Hoops Season

Standout players Kyle Casey (30) and Keith Wright (44) in action as Harvard, in its final home game, beat Princeton 79-67 to clinch a share of the Ivy league championship.

On the regular season’s final weekend, the Harvard men’s basketball team overpowered perennial Ivy League top dogs Penn and Princeton to win the Crimson’s first-ever Ivy championship. By pacifying the Quakers, 79-64, and taming the Tigers, 79-67, the Crimson men capped off the first 100 years of hoops at the College in the most satisfying manner: Harvard and Princeton shared the 2011 Ivy title with 12-2 records after the Tigers ended their season three days later with a victory at Penn. 

Harvard had been the only college not to win a men’s Ivy basketball title since the league began in 1956, and the quest for a championship had become a sort of Holy Grail among Crimson hoopsters and their fans. (The Harvard women, in contrast, have captured 11 Ivy titles.) That’s why the season-ending home game against Princeton on Saturday night, March 5, was literally the biggest basketball game in Harvard’s history, and sold out weeks in advance. ESPN provided national coverage, and the New York Times touted the contest beforehand.

The game lived up to all its hype. In an electrifying first half that saw 18 lead changes and the score tied nine times, Harvard battled to a 37-36 lead by halftime. In the second half, the Crimson gradually took over the game as the pumped-up crowd made the small gym thunder with cheers. At the final buzzer, hundreds of Harvard students charged out of the stands to mob their team.

 A week later, in another thrilling contest, the same two teams met in the Yale gym for a one-game playoff to determine which of the Ivy co-champions would have the league’s automatic entry into the NCAA postseason tournament. This one went down to the wire: the Crimson led by a point with only 2.8 seconds remaining, but the Tigers hit a buzzer-beating shot (videotape review required) to win, 63-62. Thus Harvard’s postseason play was in the National Invitation Tournament (NIT) rather than the NCAA March Madness. Oklahoma State bested the Crimson, 71-54, in the NIT’s first round. (Kentucky dispatched Princeton, 59-57, in the first round of the NCAAs.)

The team’s 23 victories are the most in the history of the program; the 23-7 overall mark (including postseason) topped last year’s 21-8. The Crimson’s record of 14-0 at Lavietes Pavilion set a new record for home wins. Forward Keith Wright ’12 was elected Ivy League Player of the Year and named to the All-Ivy First Team, while the National Association of Basketball Coaches honored head coach Tommy Amaker as its All-District Coach of the Year for District 13. The triumphant 14-man squad will lose no seniors in May, and has only three juniors. In a column on Harvard’s landmark season-ending weekend, the Boston Globe’s Bob Ryan concluded, “Harvard is coming, and Harvard will not be stopped.”

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