True tourney sleepers: Harvard stuns even itself with first NCAA victory

By Matt Norlander | College Basketball Writer

SALT LAKE CITY -- Only a few hours before Harvard won the first NCAA tournament game in program history, many on the team weren't saying a word to each other -- because they were napping at the Radisson only 300 yards from where they would make history by night's end.

Crimson freshman guard Siyani Chambers even dozed as the team rode over to the arena. He couldn't so much as recall the music playing on his iPod.

"Sometimes you can overthink things heading into a game," Chambers said. "The nap helps you stay clear."

Chambers was the one who dribbled out the time on Harvard's shocking 68-62 win over No. 3 New Mexico, his face lighting up with realization of the history happening, his expression bigger and bigger as the clock clicked away. Up went the ball, instantly the pep band played and the Crimson earned themselves a beautiful TV moment.

"I was overwhelmed by that moment," Chambers said.

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Before that rupture of celebration, the No. 14-seeded Crimson made history Thursday night by toppling New Mexico and playing with such poise and straightforward focus, you would never guess this was the team's first go-round to the Round of 32. Though the initial reaction in the immediacy and privacy of the team's locker room looked boisterous, by the time the media got in there, a different vibe settled.

It just didn't seem like history had been made. There were smiles and good feelings, but this was not a bounce-off-the-walls scene. There wasn't we-expected-to-do-this dogma being broadcast. It was merely businesslike. Satisfaction, now on to the next one. This is Harvard. Pressure to succeed extends beyond what's done in a uniform.

That reflects Tommy Amaker's style, and to a man, both in casual conversation and for-the-record quotes, all redirected the credit for this one to him. The coach said this win was as meaningful to him as any other in his coaching career.

"We also had to be a little fortunate this evening," he said. "It means to the world to us, a significant moment for us to be in this position."

The way Harvard won remains most impressive. This was not a plucky upset by an Ivy League team that used trickery or quirk in order to bring down a big boy. Harvard had the lead more often than not during the game. It had some distance in its margin for much of the night. And it fended off foul trouble with three of the seven men total who saw playing time against a taller, more physical, well-rounded Lobos team.

Former Harvard players made the trip, bought the tickets and sat about 20 rows up in section 17. It was a convention of awkward high fives after the last buzzer. When the game was over, a member of the school band wielded its massive flag and waved it high as the players made their way into the locker room after a joyous few seconds on the floor to celebrate something that was more than 100 years in the making. Harvard is the oldest school in this country, and its fourth trip to the NCAA tournament ever -- reaching it in a second successive year after a 66-year drought -- has given the NCAA tournament one of its headline storylines for the next three weekends.

"This was for all the players and all the students who've gone to Harvard," sophomore Steve Mondou-Missi said. "We know nobody had this."

"It's unbelievable," Christian Webster said. "We were talking in the back. We're still in disbelief, can't believe it happened."

More record-book fodder from this game: Webster crossed 1,000 points for his career during this game and Laurent Rivard set the Harvard record for most 3s in a season.

Mondou-Missi added that the team, or at least he, started to believe winning the game was a realization by the end of the first half. Harvard went into the break with a 31-27 lead. Despite an eight-minute field-goal drought in the second half, the team never lost control of the game. Harvard utilized a careful method of possession basketball, waiting and waiting and waiting for the right shot. Often, it was Rivard (17 points) who sank the needed 3. The team hit eight 3s on 44 percent shooting. Wesley Saunders led the team with 18.

"This is so much joy after a season that was such a grind," Chambers said.

There is weight to those words. Harvard's been through a lot, and truth be told, if the team hadn't even reached the NCAA tournament few could have found blame. In the preseason Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry were removed from the team for a year for being caught in an academic scandal. Harvard wasn't even picked to win the Ivy. Then came the token 14 seed against a New Mexico team that had legitimate claim to a No. 2 seed.

All of it went out the door Thursday night, except for the means of motivation by way of a number next to Harvard's name on every bracket.

"We had the mentality of a 14 seed," Kenyatta Smith said.

Yet the team didn't play for broke. It benefitted from subpar play by New Mexico's Tony Snell and Kendall Williams, who combined for 18 points. It was eye-opening to see a proven team like New Mexico play so small. Harvard's the one with the size disadvantage, but it kept going and finding answers. It was ready well before it even realized, too.

It was about shortly before bedtime on Wednesday night when the players first got to see video of the Lobos that assistant Yanni Hufnagel had been poring over for 72 hours. Hufnagel -- who was on staff when Blake Griffin at Oklahoma, and received Twitter love from the Clippers star Thursday night -- was working off virtually no sleep since Selection Sunday. The staff didn't want to bog the team down with thinking of New Mexico's schemes. They wanted the players to be mostly focused on running their own stuff. Unbenknowst to the players, the coaches slyly mixed in some New Mexico "action," as it were, during practice.

But the team didn't even see tape on New Mexico until 9 p.m. Wednesday night.

And it won't see a second of film on Arizona until late Friday night.

At this point, Harvard's just a really cool story, and a truly unpredictable one. It wasn't a terrific opening Thursday, but it ended with an outcome that will be an all-timer. It wasn't dramatic, just bemusing in its casual endgame. I know I'll never forget being here for this one. I want to share this anecdote to wrap things up. As I was walking out of the arena and heading back to my car Thursday night/Friday morning, I heard them again, that snarky Harvard band.

At this hour? Midnight? Yes.

Oh, I get it.

The team was getting off the bus. Two rows of woodwinds, brass, cheerleaders and students had formed outside the hotel's main entrance. Inside, Harvard fans waited to greet the team.

How could any of them choose sleep now.

 
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