One and Done

Harvard men's basketball team falls to Vanderbilt in NCAA competition

The Harvard men's basketball team, a number 12 seed in their first NCAA tournament competition since 1946, lost in Albuquerque to Vanderbilt, a number 5 seed, by a score of 79-70.

The Crimson's Dennis J. Zheng, reporting from the game, observed that while the team did not achieve its immediate goal—recording the Crimson's first win in postseason play—"[C]o-captains Keith Wright and Oliver McNally, along with center Andrew Van Nest, will ultimately be remembered for having brought a much-maligned program out of the doldrums of college basketball" as "Coach Tommy Amaker’s first crop of recruits won 94 total games while establishing a lengthy list of 'firsts': as juniors, the school’s first-ever Ivy League championship, and a season later, its first NCAA tournament appearance in 66 years."

Although the Crimson led 20-17 late in the first half, Vanderbilt went on a 16-3 run to lead 33-23 at intermission, and then extended its lead to 18 points. Rather than folding in the face of Vanderbilt's superior size and advantages in rebounding and blocked shots, the Crimson rallied, cutting the deficit to just 5 points with 1:51 to play. Vanderbilt's sudden re-discovery of the art of shooting free throws proved decisive, however, and the Crimson were ultimately unable to catch up.

The Boston Globe's Mark Blaudschun reported:  

It wasn’t that Harvard, playing its first NCAA Tournament game in 66 years, didn’t have the right stuff to win Thursday’s East Regional game against Vanderbilt.

Coach Tommy Amaker’s team had all the necessary ingredients.

It had the toughness provided by veterans Kyle Casey, Brandyn Curry, Keith Wright, and Oliver McNally, the core group who led the revival of Crimson basketball under Amaker.

It had the long-range firepower of guard Laurent Rivard, who scored 17 of his team-high 20 points in the second half.

It had the heart of a champion and easily could have called it a day and a season when it looked at the scoreboard with 7:48 remaining and were trailing by 18 points.

What the Crimson didn’t have, however, was enough of the right stuff against a Vanderbilt team that is on its own mission. 

And Globe columnist Bob Ryan, a passionate basketball fan, observed:

I saw a Harvard basketball team take the floor to play an NCAA Tournament game as its band played “10,000 Men of Harvard.’’ That alone may have been worth the trip.

Winning was, of course, the goal, but beating this particular Vanderbilt team with the weapons at Harvard’s disposal was always a major reach, as even Crimson coach Tommy Amaker had to acknowledge.

“You could see the difference in size and athleticism,’’ he said. “At every position.’’

But Harvard made it a game. Trailing by 18 (62-44) with 7:48 to go, this affair could have turned into an embarrassing dunkarama and a 30-plus victory margin for the Vanderbilt Commodores, not the respectable 79-70 final it became.

Putting the game in perspective, Ryan noted:

The better team won. It’s a good thing for Vandy, because the three previous Commodore squads to play a lower seed in a 5-12 or 4-13 game came home in disgrace, something the Crimson knew quite well.…

It is not too early to put this 2011-12 Harvard achievement in perspective. This has been the greatest season in Harvard basketball history, and that is said with all due respect to the 1945-46 squad, which has received a lot of recent well-deserved publicity. This group did what Harvard folk have talked about, and some may actually even have dreamed about, for decades. It won the Ivy League and got to the NCAA Tournament. Most importantly, once the Crimson arrived, they acquitted themselves with honor.

That’s why those final nearly eight minutes were so important. Losing by 25 or 30 would have put a stain on the NCAA participation. Making a team that had just beaten Kentucky to win the SEC tournament sweat to the final minute makes this a much more meaningful experience.

In all, Ryan, said, "It is an indisputable eternal truth that it is indeed better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all." For this Harvard team, he concluded, the record remains: "Twenty-six wins. The undisputed Ivy title. Hearing the stirring '10,000 Men of Harvard’ as they took the floor to play an NCAA Tournament game. They have gone where no Harvard men have gone before. They should be proud."

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