Watching the Princeton-Harvard game last night, I couldn't help but be reminded of one of my favorite movies, Die Hard. At the end of Die Hard, after our hero John McClane has against all odds beaten the gangsters and saved his wife, one last terrorist, one we had left for dead, bursts out of the Nakatomi Plaza to make his last stand. It seems impossible: after everything McClane has done, they just keep coming.
Last night, for Harvard fans, the Tigers were that impossible movie villain, bursting out of the grave to try to derail the Crimson's glory. Again.
After an incredible game, Princeton found themselves down five with twenty seconds remaining. T.J. Bray buried a three to cut the lead to two. Harvard co-Captain Oliver McNally calmly stepped to the line and made four more free throws to extend the lead to six with five seconds remaining, before Princeton's Doug Davis, the hero of the Ivy playoff last season, dribbled to half court, pulled up, and drained a three to cut the final margin to three.
Just like John McClane, Harvard had won, but Princeton had simply not stopped coming forward.
Of course, I am being intentionally uncharitable to Princeton in casting them as the villains. I find so much to admire in the Tigers, who this season exhibit so much of what we should love about college basketball. After being national darlings last season, Princeton faded from the spotlight with early season struggles. The Tigers were attempting to find themselves under a new coach and without their graduated stars. It took them awhile, but they are playing their best basketball at the end of the season.
The Tigers' floor spacing is incredible. It is hard to fully appreciate this until you watch them in person. Because of their personnel, they are able to avoid double teams and always seem to be working with space in the post. At the heart of this is junior forward Ian Hummer, who is one of the best passing big men the Ivy League has ever seen.
For the better part of the first half, that offense whirred like an efficient machine, and Princeton built a 32-22 advantage with four minutes to go. At one point, they scored on seven straight possessions. But Harvard closed the half on a 9-0 run, keyed by a Brandyn Curry three and five consecutive stops.
The second half was one of the better halves of basketball I have seen this season. Princeton built their lead to seven with 11 minutes to go, and it started to feel like deja vu for Harvard fans. But then Brandyn Curry took over, and Lavietes got loud.
Curry made a layup and the foul, then snuck behind Davis to deflect the inbounds pass off of him and get a steal for Harvard. Five seconds later, he found Keith Wright inside. Wright was fouled, and made both free throws. With the bleachers of Lavietes literally shaking under the weight of the bouncing student section, Harvard played a great defensive possession and forced a tough jump shot attempt from Hummer. A Wright tip-in later, and Harvard had its first lead of the second half.
The Tigers could have folded right then as the roof of Lavietes was ready to blow off with the noise, but they came roaring back. Mack Darrow and Hummer both made layups to take the lead back at 55-54, but then Curry drained a wing three and a jumper to give the Crimson a lead they would not relinquish.
Down the stretch, Oliver McNally made six consecutive free throws that sealed the game for Harvard. This win was especially sweet for McNally, as he was the one beaten by his nemesis Davis on the buzzer beater at the Ivy playoff last season. When Davis pulled up and swished his 45-footer at the buzzer last night, he did not celebrate or jump into the waiting arms of his teammates. He put his head down and quietly walked to his bench.
Doug Davis and Princeton had done everything they possibly could to beat Harvard for a second time and derail the Crimson's season. But like the last bad guy at the end of the movie, they came up just short.