Harvard basketball steals Ivy League title, punches ticket to NCAA Tournament

With nine seconds remaining, Javier Duren sprinted up the court, the ball in his left hand, what was left of Yale’s NCAA tournament chances on his back.

They were chances that once seemed so promising — last Friday when the Bulldogs topped Harvard to take a one-game lead in the Ivy League standings, a week back when they led Dartmouth by 5 points with 35 seconds left, even just a few minutes earlier when they held a one-point lead over Harvard with 1:47 to play.

But Yale coughed up its lead at Dartmouth, allowing Harvard basketball to sneak back atop the Ivy League standings. That forced a tiebreaker with the Crimson for the Ivy’s lone bid to the NCAA tournament. And in that one-game playoff, that lead Yale once held was gone now, too, erased by back-to-back Harvard baskets.

Which left Duren — Yale’s All-Ivy point guard — with one last chance to help push the Bulldogs into the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1962.

Duren moved the ball past half court, closely guarded by Harvard wing Wesley Saunders. Five seconds left. Duren crossed from right to left, beating Saunders. Now he barreled toward the hoop.

Harvard forward Steve Moundou-Missi shuffled over to help, but Duren arched a layup at the hoop that kissed off the backboard and seemed headed for the bottom of the net.
“I thought it was in,” Duren said after the game.

It wasn’t. The ball bounced off the rim, and the next thing he knew, Duren was hunched over behind the basket, watching Harvard celebrate at center court.

“It took me a little while to realize what happened because when I let it go it looked so good,” Duren said. “A situation like that, I think it’s hard to get a better look.”

“We got lucky, to be honest,” Moundou-Missi said after the Crimson’s 53-51 win.

Harvard, winners of five straight Ivy League championships, will now head to its fourth straight NCAA tournament.

“Great basketball game,” Yale coach James Jones said. “Harvard was able to make one more play than we did.”

That play came on Harvard’s final possession, when Saunders drove and dished to Moundou-Missi open at the top of the key. Harvard’s 6-foot-7 forward drilled the mid-range jumper with nine seconds left to give the Crimson its final 53-51 lead.

It was a fitting finish, as it was Saunders and Moundou-Missi who carried the Crimson all of Saturday afternoon before a crowd of 5,256 at Philadelphia’s historic Palestra. Moundou-Missi recorded 11 points and 9 rebounds and — more importantly — held Yale’s Ivy League Player of the Year forward Justin Sears to just 5 points in the second half.

Saunders, meanwhile, posted a game-high 22 points on 8-of-15 shooting and added 4 rebounds and 4 assists.

“Wesley Saunders, in particular, made every big play we needed,” Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said.
After a relatively quiet first half, Saunders went off in the second, scoring nine straight points in a stretch of 1:40 to transform a five-point Crimson deficit into a four-point lead.

That lead grew to as many as nine with 6:19 left, but Yale got to the free throw line five times down the stretch to help close the gap to a single point — 48-47 — with 2:48 to go.

And after Sears came up with a steal, Yale’s Makai Mason knocked down a short jumper to give Yale the 49-48 lead.

Saunders answered, though, with an and-one layup to put the Crimson back on top 51-49 with 1:27 left. On the other end, Harvard nearly came up with a stop, but Duren was fouled on the perimeter with just a few ticks left on the shot clock. Duren went two-for-two from the free throw line (his 11th and 12th points on the night) to even the score at 51-51.

On the following possession, Moundou-Missi missed a jumper with 37 seconds to play, but the Crimson recovered the offensive rebound, setting up the Crimson’s game-winning bucket.

“Wes drove and they collapsed — he made the entire play,” Moundou-Missi said. “I was wide-open. All I had to do was make the shot.”

Moundou-Missi and the rest of the Crimson will learn their opening-round NCAA tournament opponent tomorrow — Selection Sunday.

The Bulldogs, meanwhile, will cross their fingers and hope for a bid to the NIT. But Yale senior Javier Duren isn’t bitter.

“I’m just blessed,” Duren said at the postgame press conference, just a few minutes after he missed the biggest shot of his life. “I had my parents come from St. Louis, Missouri…just to see this game, and it’s probably the most fun game I’ve been a part of.

“I’m a competitor like everyone else, but I can’t help be humble and be proud not only of myself but the guys battling and fighting beside me. We represented Yale well.”

Javier Duren leads Yale basketball through Harvard and to the doorstep of the NCAAs

The last player to leave the floor, Javier Duren jogged off the court at Lavietes Pavilion, his index finger pointed in the air.

Yale basketball’s 6-foot-4 point guard entered Friday night’s matchup with Harvard as a sidekick — the No. 2 option on the league’s No. 2 team. But as he passed by a cheering visitor’s section toward the locker room, Duren had accomplished what no player or team had been able to for so long: knock the Crimson from the top of the Ivy League.

Javier Duren scored 22 points to lead Yale past Harvard and into the Ivy League driver's seat with one game left to play. Photo Credit: Steve Musco / Yale Athletics
Javier Duren scored 22 points to lead Yale past Harvard and into the Ivy League driver’s seat with one game left to play. Photo Credit: Steve Musco / Yale Athletics

The Bulldogs senior scored a game-high 22 points, and Yale beat Harvard 62-52 to clinch at least a share of the Ivy League title. A win tonight or a Crimson loss will give the Bulldogs the outright championship and the team’s first NCAA tournament berth since 1962.

Harvard, meanwhile, had its hopes of scoring unprecedented fifth straight Ivy championship and fourth consecutive tournament berth seriously damaged.

The Crimson, which has struggled all season on offense, once again failed to establish a rhythm.

Harvard missed 15 of its 17 three-point attempts and shot just 32.7 percent from the field.
Corbin Miller, the team’s top three-point shooter, went 0-of-8 from deep.

“I thought we had a ton of shots,” Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said. “We just didn’t make them. I don’t know what else to say.”

But even despite the team’s offensive struggles, it looked like Harvard might find a way to win.

After trailing by as many as 12 in the second half, the Crimson took the momentum on a Steve Moundou-Missi alley-oop dunk with 5:25 to play and, less than two minutes later, cut the deficit to two on a pair of Siyani Chambers’ free throws.

As the second attempt passed through the net, it seemed as if the back-to-back-to-back-to-back Ivy League champs would make another slow start irrelevant.

But on Yale’s next trip down the court, Duren nailed a stepback jumper from right elbow to put the Bulldogs back up by four with 3:10 to go.

The Crimson missed on the other end, and Yale once again put the ball in Duren’s hands. This time the point guard zipped a pass to Matt Townsend who drilled an open jumper.

Moundou-Missi answered with two free throws, and the Crimson was back within striking distance, 47-43, with 1:59 left.

This was the bend-but-don’t-break moment. The point where past Crimson teams have buckled down, gotten stops and closed out big conference games. But this time, Javier Duren spotted up on the left wing, caught a pass on the perimeter and, before his defender could close out, let a three-pointer fly.

It was good, and the Harvard side went silent as the seriousness of the situation registered.

Of course, Harvard fans should have known that the Crimson’s inconsistent shooting and offensive misdirection would eventually catch up with the team, but until Duren hit that three-pointer it always seemed like a just a possibility.

But that bucket put the Bulldogs up by 7 with 88 ticks remaining, and that was too much for the Crimson to overcome.

“I thought Duren was outstanding tonight,” Amaker said. “I thought his poise and his toughness and his confidence, it can be very contagious for their ballclub. He was the best player on the floor.”

That’s saying something considering Friday’s matchup featured the two frontrunners for Ivy League Player of the Year: Yale’s Justin Sears and Harvard’s Wesley Saunders.

But Sears was hampered by foul trouble and finished with just 10 points and 7 rebounds. Saunders had a solid first half — 8 points — but finished with just 11 points. Moundou-Missi finished with a team-high 21 for the Crimson.

Yale will attempt to punch its ticket to the NCAA tournament tonight at Dartmouth. The Crimson, meanwhile, will look to bounce back at home against Brown.

Tom Hamel has dibs on the last seat on the bench

In four years, Tom Hamel (center) has never scored a single point in a college game, but he has left his mark on the program. Courtesy photo / Harvard athletics
In four years, Tom Hamel (center) has never scored a single point in a college game, but he has left his mark on the program. Courtesy photo / Harvard athletics

On a November night in the underbelly of Boston’s TD Garden, seated in rows of folding chairs facing an elevated table at the front of the makeshift pressroom, a group of reporters listened to Tommy Amaker. The Harvard head coach, credited with transforming an Ivy League also-ran into a national competitor, delivered his post-game statement. His Harvard team had just played its season opener on the home court of the Boston Celtics in the Coaches v. Cancer Tipoff, beating Holy Cross.

“First off,” Amaker began, “it’s such a wonderful opportunity for us to participate in this Tipoff Classic.”

The reporters didn’t care; instead they wanted to know why Kenyatta Smith was on the bench in a foot brace rather than starting at center.

“Kenyatta will be out indefinitely,” Amaker said. “It’s probably going to be a bit longer than we’d like.”

Amaker exited, and the reporters turned off their tape recorders, satisfied.

No one from the media corps asked about Tom Hamel. No one queried why the 6’9” senior wasn’t in uniform. No one wondered when he would be healthy again.

A Snowy Saturday
When I meet Tom Hamel in Harvard Square five weeks later it’s 14 degrees. The winter’s first snow is falling, and Hamel is bundled in a puffy overcoat bearing a Harvard basketball logo—the same logo appearing on his sweatpants. (His Nikes, though bright Crimson, are logo free).

Hamel pulls on his hat, and we head south toward the Charles River. It’s exam period, and for a Saturday afternoon Harvard Square is unusually empty.

We reach the river and cross the Anderson foot bridge, our destination Harvard’s training room. It’s a destination with which Hamel has become all too familiar.

Most days, he spends 90 minutes in that room— which is exactly 79 more minutes than he has accrued in playing time in four years on the Harvard basketball team.

Hamel opens the backdoor into an empty hallway. The door to the training room is closed.

“Maybe we can sneak in,” he says. Continue reading “Tom Hamel has dibs on the last seat on the bench”