Harvard wins share of Ivy title, and much more

All along John F. Kennedy Street, they were singing.

Cries of “Ten thousand men of Harvard gained victory today!” rang out from both sides into the ebullient darkness of a warm March night. While the official attendance in Ray Lavietes Pavilion was only 2,195, it certainly felt like the thousands of players, coaches and fans of Harvard basketball, who for a century had never seen an Ivy League title, were there, too. It was their cries of joy amplifying the few who were privileged enough to see this day live. Ten thousand men of Harvard, indeed.

Lavietes Pavilion, the second oldest arena in Division I, had never seen a game of this magnitude. The Princeton Tigers came in at 11-1 in the Ivy League with a chance to win the league outright. Harvard needed a win to clinch a tie and force a possible playoff next weekend for the crown. (Princeton still has a game left at rival Penn on Tuesday.) There were 91 credentialed media members, two NBA front offices and Bill Simmons, the Sports Guy himself, sitting courtside. Former Harvard star Jeremy Lin flew up from Philadelphia, where his Golden State Warriors were preparing for a game, to witness history.

From before the tip, the atmosphere was electric. The 500 Harvard students, all dressed in white, were the loudest they had been all season. The matchup to watch was supposed to be Princeton’s Ian Hummer against Harvard’s Keith Wright in the post, but the first half was about two players: Kyle Casey and Dan Mavraides. Mavraides alternated between making 3′s and successful drives, scoring 18 first-half points. He seemed to feed off the Harvard crowd, who chanted “Baywatch, Baywatch” at him (his mother had once been in an episode). Casey answered with 17 points of his own off a variety of mid-range jumpers and acrobatic layups and dunks. Together the teams scored on 17 straight possessions. The score was 37-36 at the half.

In the second half, Harvard began to get some separation. A 3 by co-captain Oliver McNally, followed by this thunderous dunk from Casey, gave Harvard the momentum, and Harvard soon pushed the lead to 10. Credit must be given to Harvard’s Brandyn Curry, who blanketed Mavraides in the second half and limited him to three baskets. The Crimson executed crisp offense and survived a Tiger run. Soon, the clock was ticking down under two minutes and the lead was eight. The crowd started to sense the victory coming.

With 50 seconds left, the Crimson students broke into the now-familiar call and response chant “I believe that we just won.” And they had. The 79-67 victory over the Tigers was more than a single win, more than the clinching of a share of Harvard’s first Ivy League title. It stood as a testament to the work that Tommy Amaker, his staff and all of his players have put in over the last four years, and perhaps—just perhaps—as a snapshot of victories to come.

Of course, the Ivy League title race is not over. As the Harvard fans celebrated on the floor after the final buzzer, Princeton coach Sydney Johnson made his players sit on the bench, watching the spectacle. Providing that the Tigers can win at Penn in a boisterous Palestra on Tuesday (no sure thing), they will certainly be ready for the playoff rubber match with Harvard.

It may well be that Princeton wins the Ivy League this year and few outsiders remember that Harvard shared the 2011 Title. But for the Harvard fans and players, this special night at Lavietes will never be forgotten.

It was the night on which basketball, of all things, was the most important topic in Cambridge. The night that the 10,000 men of Harvard gained their most impressive victory yet.