Harvard University overcame the loss of two co-captains for the season following an academic scandal to win a game in the men’s national college basketball tournament for the first time.
Harvard last night defeated the University of New Mexico 68-62 at a National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament regional in Salt Lake City, a result predicted by 5.6 percent of the 8.15 million entries in ESPN.com’s Tournament Challenge.
Crimson coach Tommy Amaker -- a standout point guard for Duke University in the 1980s who went on to help the Blue Devils win the NCAA title in 1991 and 1992 as an assistant coach -- guided his team to the biggest upset of the championship so far after rebuilding a roster that last year played in the tournament for the first time since 1946.
“It means the world to us,” Amaker, 47, said during a news conference. “To do it in this fashion, on this stage against an outstanding team, I can’t say enough about how good this team is.”
Harvard made a return trip to the tournament after losing senior co-captains Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry, both of whom withdrew from the school in September in the wake of accusations that there were similarities on the final exams of about 125 students. More than half of the students implicated were told to withdraw for as long as a year, Harvard said in February.
It was a blow for a team coming off a school-record 26-win season, as Casey was Harvard’s leading scorer in 2011-12 and Curry was the starting point guard.
“At the beginning of the season we felt almost hopeless because we lost Curry and Casey,” said Harvard senior Nikita Jambulingam, who returned from spring break early to watch last night’s game with fellow students. “Morale for the season was low, especially because we had been tournament contenders for the last two years, but the team has really pulled together.”
Wesley Saunders, a sophomore from Los Angeles, emerged to lead the Ivy League in scoring at 16.5 points a game. Siyani Chambers, a freshman point guard from Golden Valley, Minnesota, was named the Ivy League Rookie of the Year after averaging 12.9 points and a conference-best 5.8 assists.
Harvard (20-9), the 14th seed in the West region and a 10 1/2-point underdog, advanced to face the University of Arizona tomorrow in Salt Lake City, about 2,500 miles (4,000 kilometers) from the school’s campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts. New Mexico (29-6) was seeded third in the West and was the highest-ranked team eliminated yesterday on the first full day of tournament play.
The biggest previous tournament surprise by an Ivy League school was Princeton’s win against the University of California-Los Angeles as a 13th seed in 1996.
Harvard, which counts Jeremy Lin of the National Basketball Association’s Houston Rockets among its basketball alumni, had been 0-3 in its two previous appearances in the NCAA tournament, losing two games in 1946 and getting ousted in its opener last year. The Crimson lost to Ohio State University and New York University in 1946, when there were consolation games.
Following a 4-4 start to the season, the Crimson won 15 of their final 20 games to capture the Ivy League title.
Saunders last night scored a team-high 18 points, while Chambers had five points and seven assists. Junior guard Laurent Rivard added 17 points and was 5-of-9 on 3-point shots.
Harvard shot 52.4 percent as a team to 37.5 percent for New Mexico and closed the game with a 16-9 scoring run after the Lobos had taken a 53-52 lead with six minutes, 30 seconds remaining.
The victory set off a celebration at John Harvard’s Brewery and Ale House in Harvard Square, where tables closest to the television screens near the front of the restaurant were packed with crimson-clad alumni and students.
John McGrahanan, a 1991 Harvard Law School alumnus, was back on campus for the first time since he graduated.
“It’s huge,” McGrahanan said in an interview. “If you’re a 14 seed and win, you can’t ask for anything more. Very few people obviously expected Harvard to win.”
Among the doubters was President Barack Obama, who attended Harvard Law School and also picked New Mexico to win in the bracket he filled out before the tournament.
Jack Eckalbar, 32, the assistant general manager at John Harvard’s, said the restaurant saw a 30 percent jump in sales last night even though the school is on spring break. He said the atmosphere for the game topped that for the Super Bowl.
“The whole place erupted,” he said. “I’ve never seen that type of energy.”
With the win by the Crimson, Ivy League schools improved to 41-76 in NCAA tournament history. The Ivy League is now 3-13 since 2000, with the two previous wins coming from Cornell University in 2010, when the Big Red upset Temple and Wisconsin to reach the final 16.
Harvard’s win marked the second time in seven years that a 14th seed has knocked out a No. 3 seed at the NCAA tournament. Teams with a No. 14 regional seed now have a 17-98 record against third seeds since the tournament field expanded in 1985.
For Harvard, the win was truly historic.
“We’re still in disbelief,” said senior guard Christian Webster, who added 11 points last night. “We wanted to put everything in it and believed in it, but this is as good as it gets right now.”