Harvard Goes Down Fighting in First NCAA Appearance Since 1946

Harvard University junior Ben Samuels flew to Denver from Boston and then drove seven hours to Albuquerque, New Mexico, to witness the school’s first game in college basketball's national men's tournament for 66 years.

“Just about anyone in the area with a Harvard connection is here,” the 21-year-old student of Near Eastern language and civilizations said in a phone interview before last night’s National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament game.

The 12th-seeded Crimson never gave up against fifth-seeded Vanderbilt University (25-10), even when they trailed by 18 points with less than eight minutes remaining. Harvard closed the gap to five points before losing 79-70.

“I was really impressed with the effort that our kids gave to make the game interesting toward the end,” Harvard coach Tommy Amaker told a news conference. “I can’t say enough about the fight that we had and the effort that we put forth to stay relevant in this particular basketball game.”

Harvard finished the most successful season in the 101-year history of its basketball program with a 26-5 record.

Fans gathered to see the game in restaurants and bars in Harvard Square in the center of Cambridge, Massachusetts, which is surrounded by the school’s campus.

Josh Moore, the assistant general manager of the university’s Malkin Athletic Center, said his admiration has grown in the two years he’s been keeping statistics for the team.

“They have a lot of character,” Moore said in Tommy Doyle’s pub. “They play with a lot of heart, a lot of desire.”

Home From Afghanistan

Peter Moores contemplated traveling to New Mexico for the game before opting to watch it in the nearby Grafton Street restaurant. Moores, a 2000 Harvard graduate, recently joined a law firm in Boston after returning from a stint in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps of the U.S. Army National Guard in Afghanistan.

“He was planning his trip to Albuquerque,” said his wife, Erin, a 2006 Harvard Business School graduate. “He was in Cleveland and it’s about a 24-hour drive, but he was thinking about it.”

Nashville-based Vanderbilt -- which is sometimes referred to as the Harvard of the South -- also was a fifth seed last year when it lost its opening game to No. 12 Richmond. Last night’s win was the first for the Commodores in the tournament since they reached the round of 16 in 2007.

NBA’s Linsanity

Harvard’s basketball program attracted national attention this year when economics graduate Jeremy Lin took over as the New York Knicks’ point guard in the National Basketball Association. Lin is the first Harvard alumnus in the NBA since Ed Smith made 11 appearances for the Knicks in 1953-54.

Harvard clinched its first outright Ivy League championship and an automatic NCAA berth when the University of Pennsylvania lost 62-52 March 6 against Princeton University.

“It’s a huge step forward,” Crimson forward Keith Wright said after last night’s game. “We’re leaving our mark here at the university and on the basketball program itself. It just means a lot to me that I’ve had an effect on such a prestigious institution.”

Harvard only led twice last night -- each time for less than half a minute during the first half.

The Crimson trailed 33-23 at halftime and Vanderbilt extended its lead to 18 points with 7:52 to play before Harvard rallied to trail 70-65 with 1:51 remaining.

The Crimson never got closer and the Commodores made nine free throws before Harvard’s Brandyn Curry closed out the scoring with a layup 17 seconds from the end.

“We didn’t come out with a victory, but this is something that we’re going to carry with us for the rest of our lives,” Wright added.

Rivard Leads Crimson

John Jenkins scored 27 points for the Commodores, while Laurent Rivard led Harvard with 20.

The Crimson are now 0-3 in the tournament after losses to Ohio State and New York University in 1946. In 69 NCAA appearances, Ivy League teams now have a 40-79 record and are 2-13 since 2000.

Vanderbilt, which is 10-13 in the tournament and upset No. 1-ranked Kentucky to win the Southeastern Conference tournament on March 11, tomorrow meets Wisconsin, a No. 4 seed for the third straight year. The Badgers beat Montana 73-49 yesterday for their most lopsided victory in the tournament.

“Hopefully we’ll play a little more solidly throughout the game on Saturday,” Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said in a televised interview. “We got a little loose there in the second half and we’re not a team that can afford to get loose with the ball.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Dex McLuskey in Dallas at dmcluskey@bloomberg.net; John Lauerman in Boston at jlauerman@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Michael Sillup at msillup@bloomberg.net

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