Having educated six U.S. presidents, 16 Supreme Court Justices and 41 Nobel laureates, few achievements have escaped Harvard University. One of them is winning the Ivy League men’s basketball title outright.
The Crimson ended 100 years of frustration two days ago by beating Princeton University 79-67 to claim at least a share of the title. Harvard will be champion if Princeton loses to the University of Pennsylvania in its final regular-season game tomorrow. A victory for the Tigers will force a playoff for a National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament berth.
“I’m not sure you can go on this campus and find something that’s never been done before,” Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said after the win over Princeton. “I’m thrilled for our school to finally say that we’re champions.”
Amaker was hired four years ago by Harvard, the top university in U.S. News & World Report’s annual ranking, to challenge Princeton and Penn as perennial Ivy League men’s basketball champions.
In the 54 years the Ivy League has been naming a men’s basketball champion, Princeton and Penn have each won at least a share of the title 25 times. Cornell University and Yale University rank next with four titles each; Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, with two; and Brown University and Columbia University have one each.
Established in 1636, Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Harvard started a men’s basketball team in 1900-01. It didn’t compete from 1909 to 1920 and its best Ivy League finish was second place in 1970-71.
The Crimson, who last appeared in the NCAA tournament in 1946, have improved every year since 45-year-old Amaker joined from the University of Michigan in 2007, going 8-22, 14-14 and 21-8.
The March 5 win over Princeton was Harvard’s first against the Tigers in six attempts and came one month after a 65-61 loss in New Jersey. Harvard sits atop the Ivy League standings with a 12-2 record in conference play and 23-5 mark overall. Princeton is 11-2 in the league and 23-6 overall.
The sold-out crowd of 2,195 at Lavietes Pavilion in Boston two days ago included Jeremy Lin of the Golden State Warriors, the only Harvard graduate to play in the National Basketball Association since Ed Smith appeared in 11 games for the New York Knicks in 1954.
Sophomore forward Kyle Casey led Harvard with 24 points against Princeton, while Oliver McNally added 15.
Harvard outscored Princeton 42-31 during the second half after taking a one-point halftime lead. Dan Mavraides had 25 points for the Tigers.
“A lot of people have tried, come close and put in a lot of work and determination to try to do what we’ve done this season,” Casey, the reigning Ivy League Rookie of the Year, told reporters.
The Tigers beat Penn 62-59 in overtime the last time the teams met, on Feb. 8 at Princeton. The Quakers (12-14, 5-5 Ivy) lost at home to Princeton 58-51 last season.
“It’s just a blessing that we have another game to play,” Princeton coach Sydney Johnson, 36, told reporters after the Harvard defeat. “It’s almost a gift.”
Princeton has improved every year since Johnson, who captained the Tigers for three seasons in the 1990s, arrived from Georgetown University in 2007. The Tigers finished last in the Ivy League in 2006-07 after winning two of 14 games. Since then, they’ve twice finished second and improved to 22-9 overall last year.
A venue and date for a playoff will be decided after tomorrow’s game at Penn’s Palestra arena in Philadelphia. The deciding game may be played March 11 or 12 at a neutral venue, ESPN said on its website.
Princeton won 13 of its Ivy League titles under Pete Carril, who coached the Tigers for 29 years until he retired in 1996. Carril took the team to the NCAA tournament 11 times, with perhaps his most memorable result coming in his final season, when the Tigers beat the defending champion University of California, Los Angeles 43-41.
Since Carril left with a 514-261 record, the Tigers have won the conference five times, the last time in 2004.
Princeton, which counts former U.S. President Woodrow Wilson and Supreme Court Justices Samuel Alito, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor among its alumni, lost in the first round of the 2004 NCAA tournament to the University of Texas. The Tigers have a 13-27 record in 23 NCAA tournament appearances.
Their best performance was in 1965, when they made the Final Four after going 13-1 in the regular season. The NCAA tournament featured 25 teams that year, and will have 68 entrants this year for the first time.
The Tigers will have to recover from the disappointment of losing to Harvard and show their mettle to earn a share of the conference title and with it a chance for a spot in the national tournament, Johnson said.
“You go into the season and you want to see the character of your team,” he said. “These guys are terrific in terms of their passion for the game and how much they come together. I don’t think the game in the Palestra is going to be easy. I’d be very surprised if we can’t regroup.”
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