PHILADELPHIA – Upon entering The Palestra, a visitor is greeted with a quote that sums up the ethos of this iconic basketball bandbox. “To win the game is great. To play the game is greater. But to love the game is the greatest of all.”
There was plenty to love about the one-game Ivy League playoff between Harvard and Yale on Saturday, a 53-51 Crimson victory that sends Harvard to its fourth consecutive NCAA tournament. You can start with the match-up—ancient rivals from the court to the presidential trail—and then tick off just about every component of a big game: a historic venue that opened in 1927, several late lead changes, two controversial calls, a game winning jumper and a buzzer-beater attempt that flirted with history and fell to infamy. When Bulldogs star Javier Duren’s five-foot runner rimmed out at the horn, Harvard fans stormed the floor and Yale realized that even on these hallowed grounds the love of basketball can be unrequited.
The Bulldogs haven’t reached the NCAA tournament since 1962, and in consecutive games they failed to clinch that elusive bid because of shots that hung tantalizingly in the air in the final second. Last Saturday they squandered a five-point lead in the final 35 seconds at Dartmouth and lost on an inbounds layup by the Big Green's Gabas Maldunas, who for Yale fans will become what Bucky Dent is to Red Sox fans. Maldunas’ buzzer-beater set up this one-game playoff, which the Bulldogs found an even more difficult way to lose.
Harvard took a 53-51 lead on an 18-foot jump shot from the top of the key by Steve Moundou-Missi, a pure swish with 7.2 seconds left. Harvard coach Tommy Amaker tried to call timeout, but couldn’t get the officials' attention. Duren stormed back the other way—with Yale’s James Jones wisely declining to call timeout—and got a clean look at a five-foot runner. Duren’s lefty flip touched high off the glass, bounced gently on the front rim and fell heavy into a tangle of arms and heartbreak under the hoop. Harvard’s win came accompanied with a collective exhale. “We got lucky, to be honest, that the ball didn’t go in,” Moundou-Missi said.
Duren finished the game 2 for 10 from the field and missed the potential game-tying shot, but he can take solace in winning the press conference, as the senior showed uncommon grace in the face of an unusually cruel week of March. "As much as I want to be upset, it’s really just awesome to be part of this experience," he said, smiling. "How many people get to play in Yale-Harvard for an NCAA bid?"
Jones has completed 16 seasons at Yale without getting to the NCAA tournament. That’s the longest tenure for a Division I coach at a school without reaching the NCAAs. He’s tied for the Ivy League title twice and hasn’t finished below fourth since his first year. But that NCAA bid has remained elusive. Jones is the basketball version of the Greek mythical figure Tantalus, who was tortured by having something desirable linger just out of reach. (Hence, we have the word tantalizing). “It’s just tough,” Jones said. “Very difficult. The game at Dartmouth never should have come down to what it came down to.”
Today, the final two minutes swung on a pair of controversial calls that required help from the television monitor. With Yale leading 49-48 and having corralled all the momentum after vanquishing a nine-point Harvard lead, the Crimson’s Wesley Saunders drove past the Bulldogs' Armani Cotton and converted a leaner as a referee’s whistle blew. There were three possible calls—a travel on Saunders, a foul on the floor on Cotton or a continuation call for a chance at a traditional three-point play. The officials converged on the floor to discuss and then, bizarrely, looked at the monitor to see who the foul was on. They determined the worst outcome for Yale—a foul and the basket—which Saunders converted to cap a monster day (22 points) and give Harvard a two-point lead with 1:27 remaining. “One official called it on the ground,” Jones said. “They converged and he let his partner overrule him. Again, it goes against us. Those are breaks. You need a break. What are you going to do? You hope you get a break, and we didn’t get one.”
With the game tied and 33 seconds remaining, the rebound of a Moundou-Missi jumper was batted out of bounds amid a tangle of bodies. Officials gave the ball to the Crimson and again went to the monitor. (I watched the play four times and had no idea who touched it last before it went out of bounds). The officials gave the ball to Harvard, and Moundou-Missi sercured his spot in Crimson highlight reels by burying his long jumper. The play came off a sweet dish from Saunders, who dominated the second half and drew the defense to free Moundou-Missi. “He made the entire play,” Moundou-Missi said of Saunders. “I was wide open. All I had to do was hit the shot.”
And that proved the difference in the ninth one-game Ivy League playoff. It was first between these storied schools, a new venue for their traditional high-stakes rivalry. Those are best summed up by Business Insider: “Eight U.S. Presidents graduated from Harvard, while only five graduated from Yale.” Yep, only five. Harvard and Yale are known more for producing Supreme Court justices (Harvard 20, Yale only 10), actors like Natalie Portman (Harvard) and Paul Newman (Yale) and their daunting endowments (Harvard leads Yale, $36.4 billion to $23.9 billion). Neither have nearly as rich a basketball tradition, as the Jeremy Lin versus Chris Dudley debate likely doesn’t rage over scorpion bowls at the Hong Kong (Harvard) or while passing trophy cups at Mory’s (Yale). Until they met at The Palestra on Saturday, however, none of the previous 192 meetings between the schools held nearly as much meaning.
[daily_cut.college basketball]But with Harvard heading to its fourth straight NCAA tournament—it won games against New Mexico in 2013 and Cincinnati in 2014—and Yale proving a worthy foil, the competition on the basketball court is emerging as a spirited part of the schools’ great tradition.
And in March, historic wins come with equal parts good play and good fortune. Amaker acknowledged the basketball Gods accordingly. “Everyone does,” he said when asked about karmic help. “Whether it’s Kentucky or Duke or Yale or Harvard, that’s the nature of March Madness as we see it. Not only do you have to have good fortune, but you have to be good.”
On a classic Saturday at one of college basketball’s Cathedrals, the Gods nodded in approval to Harvard.