66 years later, Harvard endures a tough loss

Associated Press  |  Last updated March 15, 2012
Hard to imagine it will take Harvard another 66 years to get back to the tournament. The way most Ivy League teams do, the Crimson lost the talent battle against a bigger, stronger team from a bigger, stronger conference. But to say their 79-70 loss to Vanderbilt of the Southeastern Conference on Thursday was a once-in-a-lifetime affair - well, that might not be quite accurate. Coached by Tommy Amaker - who learned how to balance academics and athletics at Duke - and generating plenty of buzz not only for this trip to the East Regional but for being the school that gave us Jeremy Lin, the Crimson have plenty to build on. ''They've been sensational to work with, to coach and to teach,'' Amaker said of a group of seniors that comprised his first recruiting class and spearheaded this trip. ''I think the example they've set for this program is an enormous footprint right now.'' Harvard (26-5) fell behind by 18 early in the second half but trimmed it to five with 1:51 to go. But the Commodores (25-10) went 8 for 9 from the line from there and won despite not making a field goal over the final 5:22. John Jenkins led fifth-seeded Vandy with 27 points. Harvard notched an impressive win over Florida State early in the season, then held off the Ivy League's more traditional powers, Penn and Princeton, to make the Big Show. Laurent Rivard treated The Pit like his own backyard, finishing with 20 points on 6-for-7 shooting from 3-point range - many jacked up from well behind the line. But nobody else on Harvard shot well, and the Commodores built a lead that was too big to overcome. Kyle Casey scored 13 and Brandyn Curry had 12 for Harvard, which went 20 for 49 from the floor if you take out Rivard's shots. All those players will return next year - a good sign for Harvard's future. ''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,'' Amaker said. Harvard led 17-16 early, and the one member of the Crimson band shouted out to the Vanderbilt players: ''You beat Kentucky, and now you're losing to an Ivy League School.'' Funny stuff, even if it lasted only a few seconds. Vanderbilt closed the first half on a 17-6 run and kept the lead at 10 or more for most of the second half. The most telling sequence came with just under 11 minutes left, when Vanderbilt missed four shots and got offensive rebounds on all of them. The possession ended when Jenkins hit a 17-footer and got fouled to set up a three-point play for a 56-42 lead. Jenkins had a three-point play, a four-point play and a traditional 3-pointer in the second half. Jeffery Taylor, who won a state title with Hobbs High School here at The Pit, finished with 15 points for Vandy while another senior, Festus Ezeli, grabbed 11 rebounds, blocked four shots and altered many more. This was a sweet win for Vanderbilt, considering its tournament history. The Commodores had lost their tournament openers to Richmond, Murray State and Siena over the last four years - becoming the punch line for a veritable who's who of first-round bracket busters. Jenkins, a junior, could have gone to the NBA last year but decided to stick it out, along with four seniors in the starting lineup. They are, to put it one way, the anti-Kentucky - the team they beat last Sunday in the SEC tournament final. Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings takes as much pride in the number of degrees he manufactures as the number of wins. This year at Vanderbilt, he's proving you can produce both. ''In our particular case, we've got some young, talented guys, but our older guys are better,'' Stallings said. ''So they've grown up in our program. They have built our program to a level that Vanderbilt's not accustomed to.'' Same could be said at Harvard, where success in the classroom is much more common than on the basketball court. ''One thing that sticks with me is a kid who played high school basketball with me and said, `You're living out a lot of people's dreams right now,''' senior guard Oliver McNally said. ''That's probably the one that stuck with me the most. That's totally true, but right now it's a lot of disappointment.''
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