If you've read my writing, you may have guessed that my main area of conference expertise is the Ivy League. The Ancient Eight does not have a conference tournament, preferring to send the winner of their true round-robin conference schedule to the NCAA's. On rare occasions, however, when there is a tie for that distinct honor, the Ivy hosts the most interesting conference tournament of them all: a one-game playoff at a neutral site.
There have been two such playoffs in the last decade of Ivy play. In 2002, Penn, Yale, and Princeton all tied for first place. Penn won the head-to-head tiebreaker, and got to watch as Yale beat Princeton at The Palestra for the right to face the Quakers. Penn then soundly defeated the Elis to take the Ivy crown at Lafayette.
The more recent playoff is one that I will never forget. Harvard and Princeton, both 12-2 in league play, met at Payne-Whitney in New Haven in 2010 to settle a season-long duel for the NCAA Tournament bid. The electric atmosphere was aided by Yale's student section seating arrangements. The first 15 rows along one side of the court were divided in half for the Harvard and Princeton student sections.
20 minutes before tipoff, the Crimson and Tiger fans joined in a coordinated chant of "Yale Sucks." After that, however, there was no cordiality between the two sides. The Ivy League has a bizarre playoff tradition where they present the trophy to both teams before tipoff. Each team takes a turn hoisting the trophy and posing for pictures, but only one can win the auto-bid. This only heightened the intensity in that venerable gym.
What followed was a game for the ages. Harvard held a 10-point lead in the second half, but Princeton came storming back to lead by one with 30 seconds remaining. Brandyn Curry made a twisting layup to put Harvard up by one, and Kyle Casey blocked Kareem Maddox's shot attempt out of bounds with 3 seconds remaining. On the ensuing inbounds play, with the bleachers shaking as the Harvard students chanted "I Believe," Doug Davis shotfaked Oliver McNally into the air, and hit the dramatic buzzer beater
that would be replayed ad nauseum for the next week.
I will never forget the arc of that ball as it traced its way down towards the net. It felt like it took a minute for the inevitable gut punch to arrive.
The Ivy League playoff is the rara avis
of conference tournaments, a Halley's Comet that periodically brightens the March sky. If Harvard wins its remaining two games this weekend and Princeton drops one of its final three, we will have a rematch of that 2010 playoff. Here's hoping we all get to experience that again.