CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – This was no ordinary game for Harvard. This was a game against a challenger to their lead in the Ivy League, even if it was a team that sits two games back in the loss column and thus needs help. More importantly, it was against the team that has been a thorn in their side of late, and that includes this season as their only league loss came less than two weeks earlier on the road against this team. It was against the team whose heart-breaking defeat of them led to a constant mention of a simple number all season: 2.8.
And when Harvard walked off the court with a hard-fought 67-64 win over Princeton, the feelings about this one were not like the feelings after any other win.
“They’ve kind of been our speed bump for the last couple of years, so it was a little more than just a game for us,” said Kyle Casey, who led the Crimson with 20 points and eight rebounds. “It was a little something personal. We had to throw everything into it to pull it out tonight.”
“I would have taken this type of game over a 30-point blowout, because we’ve been in that situation so many times against Princeton in my four years,” said senior guard Oliver McNally, whose 13 points included six free throws in the final 18 seconds. “Every single game against Princeton was winnable for us. It showed how resilient we are, and to not let those negative thoughts overcome how we played and our attitude made the win more special than if we totally out-played them.”
If you’re wondering, 2.8 is the number of seconds Harvard was from an NCAA Tournament bid last season. They had a one-point lead against Princeton in New Haven, but Doug Davis broke their hearts with a jumper after an inbounds pass in those final seconds that won the game. Brandyn Curry, who played a key role in the win with 15 points and six assists (with no turnovers), said that number comes up “a lot”, especially now that we’re nearing the end of the season.
“It definitely is a different mentality when we face them, we definitely wanted to beat them,” said the junior point guard.
“That game was brutal, it ripped our hearts out,” said McNally, referring to the playoff game last season. “It was one of the toughest things I’ll ever go through, especially me because that was my man.”
On Friday night, there was even a point where Davis might have had McNally and Harvard fans having flashbacks. Although it wasn’t at the same point in the game, Davis hit a tough off-balance shot from just inside the arc as the shot clock expired to start a 6-0 run at the beginning of the second half.
It was a game that lived up to its billing in every way, even though first place was not on the line as Princeton came in two games back in the loss column. Harvard jumped out to an early 9-1 lead, and Princeton looked out of their element. But that didn’t last long, as Princeton got some confidence and took the lead with just under nine minutes to go in the half and held it until about the halfway point of the second half. It became a back-and-forth game after that, and was played within a six-point window the rest of the way. And each time Harvard rallied, the defense put Princeton through a stretch where they struggled to find the basket.
“I can’t say enough about our team defense in critical moments,” said head coach Tommy Amaker.
Harvard got past the team they had not been able to in a crucial game, and it sets the stage for them to get the NCAA Tournament bid they have wanted. They can clinch a tie for the regular season title with a win on Saturday against Penn. Even with a win, they will have to wait until next week to clinch the bid, as it will only come with an outright title. If they do that, 2.8 can fade into the recesses of their memories as they would have something more positive to remember.