When preparing to head to Albuquerque to watch Round of 64 action (a personal aside - it's not the second round, PIG is still PIG even if there are four of them now!), I made sure to read up as much as I could about the three teams - Montana, Harvard, and South Dakota State - from the Mid-Majority that would be playing in this hallowed venue. And while I had caught some of John Ezekowitz's later recaps of Ivy League action, I had missed his earlier ones. Perusing his first twoentries about the Crimson, I noted a quiet confidence in both his writing and sentiments about Harvard's season. Of course, the national "sportz" media had already crowned the Crimson Ivy League champs in November, but there was no braggadocio in claims that a loss to Connecticut would "not be the defining moment of their season" but rather serve as proof that Harvard "held their own," no entitlement or cockiness in espousing that their best memories "might be yet to come." Harvard, in other collegiate respects the pinnacle, was still part of the "all of us, each of us" creedo that defines Mid-Majority basketball.
Fast-forward to March, and those prognostications had proved accurate, and Harvard had the opportunity to embark on a trip to NCAAs they had not made in 66 years. Their journey was ably recapped by others here and elsewhere, one that found them with a target on their backs for every Ivy League contest. Resolute, they had only encountered defeat four times, a testament to a seven-man rotation that espoused the aforementioned mantra necessary to succeed below the Red Line. They emerged at the other end of the tunnel and into the Pit, where Vanderbilt - sometimes called the "Harvard of the South" - awaited ensconced comfortably on the other side of both court and collegiate finances.
And just how does one get to Albuquerque for the NCAAs on a Thursday in March? Well, let me tell you. The day began after eight, almost two hours later than a normal work day. A shower and quick breakfast later and the Honda Civic stood ready, anticipating a hundred-fifty mile drive. The road wound out of the pueblo, past scenic mesas and rugged red rock. Once the sheep camps of the reservation disappeared, the bucolic splendor merged easily into a quaint Mormon village where the most activity appeared to be at the post office.
Once through town, the road continued eastward, climbing through another reservation toward the Continental Divide. Before the summit, however, were the national monument, the gay commune's splendid café and coffeehouse, the old school house-turned art gallery, and gravel pit. Up over the divide, into the second national monument, where the malpaís - as the Spanish called these volcanic badlands - lingered thousands of years since ancient calderas erupted - no longer smoldering, but eerily present, conical vestiges of a primordial age stoically standing in the background - erupted. Past the stretch of highway where a much-too-late-appearing mule deer had compelled a speeding Corolla to swerve instantaneously, lose traction, and spin sideways into a guardrail at seventy miles an hour last July. There's a reason I drive a Civic now - and also much slower on that stretch of road.
A turn north, skirting the edge of the malpaís and the shadow of an 11,000 foot peak, snow still becalming the summit even in an unusually warm winter like this one. Eventually finding the interstate, where seventy-five miles of pavement went by in a blink, each succeeding casino a reminder of the strange poverty and penance wrought upon the Native American in the modern world. East through road construction, red rock, and roadkill, ultimately finishing in the place named after a Spanish viceroy more than three hundred fifty years ago. I would do that drive again that evening, another hundred fifty miles after the fourth game of the day, returning home by 1:15 to teach school at 8 the next morning.
A fairly epic route, no? Well, it has nothing on the sixty-six year odyssey Harvard endured between tourney appearances. Other than Northwestern's epic inability to find its way into the Dance, perhaps no other team's tourney drought has been heralded to the extent of the Crimson. Last year's buzzer-beating dagger in a one game playoff against Princeton delayed the party, but Tommy Amaker's team put everything together. Harvard's 1946 tournament squad used GI Bill transfers and a less-than-stellar schedule to advance, ultimately falling to a team, Ohio State, that has come to define big time college athletics. The Boston Globe columnist, John Nason, who covered the team in 1946, when summing up the state of Crimson hoops, avowed, "Harvard's basketball is usually rated somewhat lower, on a national scale, than an ant's spats," probably my favorite quote ever.
But the past is the past, and the present was Albuquerque on a Thursday afternoon in March. Vanderbilt, a preseason Top 10 pick by many publications, had the athleticism, height, and physicality of a school over the line - even Kyle Casey, a specimen of strength I'd venture appears on teams above the Line just a bit more often than below it, looked dwarfed by Festus Ezeli, Vandy's behemoth center.
The first half began innocuously enough, with some combination of nerves and sloppiness leading to missed "bunnies" on both sides. Harvard showed a desire to limit Vandy's fast break chances, forgoing the offensive glass to send two and three players back on a shot. At the ten-minute mark, the teams still were feeling each other out, Ezeli swatting Casey on one end then committing an offensive foul against him within ten seconds. Down 16-12, the crowd finally came to life when Laurent Rivard drained a superhoop and was fouled heading into the under-8 TV timeout. Moments later, with the Crimson now ahead 17-16, there was a level of anticipation in the crowd - they wanted the Ivy Leaguers to take control.
Unfortunately, that wasn't the case. Casey's second foul hurt, and sudden tentativeness on the offensive end turned each possession into torturous uncertainty, Vandy's brute force exerting its will. When Brandyn Curry hit a triple just before half, I hoped momentum would swing back. Unfortunately, Vandy's Bard Tinsley dribbled down and drained one of his own at the horn, putting Vandy up 33-23 and curtailing any notions of positive vibes carrying over.
The second half promoted more of the same at least initially - Vandy steadily pulling away, their guard play from future pro ballers John Jenkins and Jeff Taylor doing damage to the Crimson's hopes. A Taylor dunk with 7:48 left put Vandy up 18.
John Harvard wouldn't quit, however. Perhaps inspired by their band, whose conductor did a mean riverdance and also used a baton to conduct (I've never seen that in a pep band), a rally slowly mounted. Rivard, the only consisten Crimson shooter for the day, started draining superhoops that kept moving farther and farther out. Vandy tightened up, and free throws stopped falling; Oliver McNally, Harvard's heady point guard, forced a turnover, and two free throws brought the margin down to seven. The crowd, having moved their attention to the Lobos game being played concurrently in Portland, swung back into energetic fervor over this plucky bunch from Cambridge. Another defensive stop, Ezeli fouls Keith Wright, and with less than two minutes left, Harvard's down only five! Could the unthinkable happen?
It didn't. A questionable out-of-bounds call against McNally didn't help (on replay, the ball appeared to clearly hit a Vandy player standing out of bounds) hurt, but Vandy also started making free throws. The gutty effort fell short.
As I exited the Pit, awaiting the next session, however, I wasn't upset. Rather, Harvard had proved inspiring, defiant in defeat. And while they won't be the same team next year, I don't think it'll be 66 years until the Crimson represent in the Dance yet again. In fact, the best "might be yet to come."
VANDERBILT 79, HARVARD 70 03/15/2012
HARVARD 26-5 (12-2) -- B. Curry 5-13 1-2 12; O. McNally 2-5 0-0 4; K. Wright 3-8 2-2 8; K. Casey 3-8 6-6 13; L. Rivard 6-7 2-4 20; C. Webster 2-7 0-0 5; W. Saunders 1-4 0-0 2; C. Miller 0-0 0-0 0; S. Moundou-Missi 2-2 0-0 4; J. Travis 1-1 0-0 2; M. Brown 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 25-56 11-14 70. VANDERBILT 25-10 (10-5) -- J. Taylor 6-13 1-4 15; J. Jenkins 7-12 10-13 27; R. Odom 2-4 0-0 5; F. Ezeli 2-3 4-6 8; B. Tinsley 5-6 4-4 16; K. Johnson 2-5 0-1 4; S. Tchiengang 0-1 0-0 0; L. Goulbourne 1-2 2-2 4; D. Parker 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 25-46 21-30 79.
Three-point goals: HARV 9-24 (O. McNally 0-3; K. Casey 1-3; B. Curry 1-5; C. Webster 1-6; L. Rivard 6-7), VAND 8-18 (B. Tinsley 2-2; J. Taylor 2-5; J. Jenkins 3-8; R. Odom 1-2; K. Johnson 0-1); Rebounds: HARV 22 (K. Wright 9), VAND 35 (F. Ezeli 11); Assists: HARV 14 (O. McNally 7), VAND 13 (B. Tinsley 4); Total Fouls -- HARV 21, VAND 18; Fouled Out: HARV-K. Casey; VAND-L. Goulbourne.