No. 14 seed Harvard stuns New Mexico

March 22, 2013

SALT LAKE CITY – As Wesley Saunders skipped off the floor, hands held high in victory, he was stopped and redirected toward the Harvard locker room by a student helper.

“I don’t know where I’m going,” Saunders, a sophomore, said gleefully.

Try into time immemorial. At least, into never having to buy another lager in the commonwealth.

Everyone associated with Harvard basketball will remember where they were on March 21, 2013, when the 14th-seeded Crimson posted the biggest victory in school history and pulled off the biggest upset in the first full day of the NCAA tournament, a 68-62 victory over 10th-ranked and third-seeded New Mexico in the NCAA West subregional at the Energy Solutions Arena.

The day before, New Mexico gave coach Steve Alford a new 10-year contact. That might put Harvard coach Tommy Amaker in line for lifetime tenure.

“We were good, and we also had to be a little fortunate. It means the world to us, a significant moment for us to be in this position,” Amaker said.

Saunders scored 18 points, junior sharpshooter Laurent Rivard had 17, Christian Webster had 11 and Kenyatta Smith had 10 in a balanced Harvard attack, and the Crimson helped themselves by shooting 52.4 percent from the field.

New Mexico, which had the second-highest RPI rating in Division I entering the tournament, shot 37.5 percent. Guards Kendall Williams and Tony Snell, who carried the Lobos to the Mountain West tournament title, were 5 for 18. Williams made one field goal and had eight points a month after scoring 46 points and making 10 3-pointers on Feb. 23 at Colorado State.  

You might have heard the postgame locker room celebration in Harvard Square.

“Pandemonium,” Webster said.

“Jubilation,” Saunders said.

“My phone is blacking out right now,” Smith said.

Harvard led most of the game, and by late in the second half the Crimson had the crowd with it before New Mexico took a 51-49 lead when 7-foot center Alex Kirk (22 points, 12 rebounds) made two free throws with seven minutes remaining.

Harvard countered immediately, when Rivard made a 3-pointer from the left baseline after a feed for freshman point guard Siyani Chambers for a 55-53 lead, an advantage it never lost. Rivard has 206 career 3-pointers, a school record.

“We used to tease him that he was the second-best shooter in Boston behind Ray Allen when he was with the Celtics. He can shoot the ball with the best of them,” Amaker said.

The Crimson (20-9) had appeared in the NCAA tournament twice before, losing to Ohio State and NYU in 1946, when the tournament had consolation games, and to Vanderbilt last season. The Crimson’s best win of the season probably was a 67-62 victory at California, which a few hours before had the upset of the day, beating UNLV as a No. 12 seed.

“They punched us first,” Kirk said. “They played harder than us. They wanted it obviously more than us, and it hurts.”

It was a remarkable step for a Harvard program that has endured a bittersweet season.  The Crimson won the Ivy League title on the last day of the regular season, but they did so without preseason co-captains Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry, who withdrew from Harvard as the school investigated academic improprieties when more than 100 students submitted remarkably similar answers to a take-home final. Casey and Curry left school soon after the investigation was made public.

“At the beginning of the season we did address some of that stuff, but it was not something we could spend a whole lot of time dwelling on," said Smith, a sophomore. "We had to move on. We had to keep doing us. We had to get right into focusing on what we had. We never gave into the pressure or the talk of what our season was going to be.

“We defined our own season by working hard and playing with a passion. Keep playing Harvard basketball. And if we did that, no matter who we have, we are going to be good.”

Harvard led by eight when Chambers hit a 14-foot jumper from the lane with 2:16 left, and the closest New Mexico could come after that was four. Chambers became a starter after the co-captains left school, and he led the nation’s freshmen by averaging about 38 minutes a game. He played the full 40 Thursday.

“We’ve dodged this bullet a lot this year by having bad shooting nights and still winning. We weren’t able to dodge that bullet tonight,” Alford said.

“I thought our focus was a little off, and I think Harvard did a lot of things to take advantage of that.”