Twice this season Harvard had brand-name power-conference foes on the ropes before allowing halftime leads to slip away at Colorado and UConn.
On Thursday, the Crimson picked an ideal time to finish the job.
Fifth-seeded Cincinnati made a series of runs at the Ivy League champs after falling behind by as many as nine points early in the second half of their opening-round NCAA tournament game, but the Bearcats never managed to forge a tie or take the lead. Sophomore point guard Siyani Chambers had five of his 12 points in the final two minutes to help 12th-seeded Harvard hang on for a 61-57 victory that sets up a round of 32 clash with either Michigan State or Delaware.
If Harvard's stunning opening-round upset of third-seeded New Mexico came out of nowhere last March, this one was a popular choice among office pool entrants. Not only can Cincinnati be prone to the kinds of prolonged scoring droughts that lead to March upsets, the Crimson are deeper, more experienced and more talented than they were a year ago.
In addition to bringing back Chambers, Ivy League player of the year Wesley Saunders and the rest of last season's young core, former all-conference players Brandyn Curry and Kyle Casey returned too after sitting out last season for their role in an academic scandal. Six players averaged nine or more points per game this season and the Crimson held Ivy League opponents to anemic 40.4 percent shooting.
The question was whether Harvard could have the same success against a power-conference foe, especially a big, athletic one in Cincinnati that plays relentless defense, crashes the offensive glass and features an elite guard in Sean Kilpatrick. The Crimson answered that quickly, seizing an early lead and answering every Cincinnati push with one of their own.
The closest the Bearcats came was within one with less than three minutes to go, but Justin Jackson failed to convert a layup off a steal and Kevin Johnson missed a 3-pointer off the ensuing offensive rebound. It was a fitting sequence for Cincinnati, which gobbled up 15 offensive boards but failed to convert nearly enough of them into points thanks to 13 missed tip-ins, dunks and layups.
Chambers made a jump shot on the next possession and later sank three of four free throws to put the game away.
When Harvard ran out the final seconds and celebrated the victory, the rejoicing was subdued enough that it was clear the Crimson expected to win this game. That's a remarkable statement considering the modest history of Harvard basketball.
In the 61 years prior to Tommy Amaker's arrival in 2007, the Crimson never won 20 games in a season, never captured the Ivy League title and never reached the NCAA tournament.
Those feats are now the norm at Harvard. Very soon, NCAA tournament wins like this one may be too.
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