Each year, March Madness enthusiasts look for the next “Cinderella” – a low-seeded team that might conceivably make a deep run.
Gonzaga, Virginia Commonwealth, George Mason and Butler have previously claimed that role. Now, with 14th seed Harvard’s 68-62 victory over third-seeded New Mexico Thursday night – their first victory ever in the 75 years of the men’s tournament – it would appear a new team may be ready to slide on a glass slipper.
It was originally thought that a team like 12th seeded Bucknell, who eight years ago felled the third-seeded Kansas Jayhawks in their first-round game, might be primed for a run. But after coming up short yesterday against Butler, 68-56, they were relegated to the role of spectator.
Harvard is appearing in only their third NCAA March classic since 1946. After taking a four-point lead into the locker room at the half, they were not ready to fold against the bigger and more athletic Lobos.
Having lost co-captains Brandyn Curry and Kyle Casey to a cheating scandal before the start of the season, the Crimson placed their hopes Thursday night on guards Wesley Saunders and Laurent Rivard, who notched 18 and 17 points, respectively. Canada native Rivard, in the words of Harvard coach Tommy Amaker, is the best three-point shooter in Boston this side of former Celtic Ray Allen, and true to form, swished five threes on the night. And Harvard, one of the best three-point shooting teams in the NCAA, hit eight of eighteen of them against New Mexico.
Kenyatta Smith, who contributed 7 rebounds and 2 blocks on the night, got in early foul trouble, and Amaker had to hold him out most of the second half. But when Smith re-entered the game with seven minutes remaining, he got some crucial defensive boards that enabled Harvard to reclaim and maintain their lead and secure victory in a hostile environment at Energy Solutions Arena, where Lobos fans heavily outnumbered the Crimson faithful.
For their part, New Mexico's play was tentative throughout – they couldn’t get an outside scoring game established, and had no answers for Harvard’s outside shooting. Their zone and man-to-man defense proved equally ineffective. Only the Lobos’ center Alex Kirk, with 22 points, could provide them with any consistent scoring.
New Mexico’s Mountain West Conference has now been effectively decimated with three defeats in the tournament – another of those coming at the hands of 12th -seeded California, who yesterday upended fifth-seed UNLV, 64-61. The Pac-12 had a much better day yesterday, with two twelve-seeds – California and Oregon (who defeated Oklahoma State, 68-55) – moving to Saturday's third round action, while the Ivy League champs now face sixth seeded Arizona, hopeful that Cinderella’s magical carriage won’t turn into a pumpkin just yet.