Thirteen banners hang from the rafters at the south end of Lavietes Pavilion, a tiny gym beside the Charles River that is home to Harvard basketball. Each one commemorates a feat of the women’s team, which has been one of the most successful in its conference. Next fall, the men will finally hang a banner of their own, as the Crimson earned a share of the Ivy League title with a 79-67 victory over Princeton March 5.
Dan Mavraides ’11 (Office of Athletic Communications)
Students swarmed the court after the final horn sounded, celebrating the first league championship in program history. Meanwhile, the Tigers watched the scene unfold from their bench, gaining motivation to win their own share of the crown this week and force a one-game-playoff.
“I think it’s important to understand what’s at stake,” said head coach Sydney Johnson ’97 on having his team stay courtside after the game. “I think it’s important to see other people celebrate. You want to be that team.”
From the opening tip, co-captain Dan Mavraides ’11 made it clear that he would do everything in his power to clinch the league championship that night. Undeterred by the Harvard student section’s chants of “Bayyy-watch,” referencing his mother’s 1990s appearance on the TV show, he scored 10 points in the first five minutes (including his 1,000th career point) and finished the half with 18, making four of five 3-pointers while mixing in a couple successful drives to the basket.
In one particularly memorable second-half sequence, Mavraides made a circus layup and was driven to the ground by contact. He got to his feet and crashed into a Crimson player while hustling back to play defense, then brought a third opponent to the ground after getting up again to find the ballhandler. Mavraides finished with a game-high 25 points.
“This was definitely one of the most fun college games I’ve played in,” he said afterward. “It’s a smaller gym, and they pack it well, and we had a good group of our fans here. It was fun to play in that type of game.”
But Harvard forward Kyle Casey was right on his heels with 24 points, and the host star obtained his much more effectively, making 9-of-13 field goals and 6-of-7 from the foul line. Casey showed impressive midrange touch in the first half and scored several times from the block in the second, but the most memorable play of the night – and probably of the Ivy League season thus far – came four minutes after halftime. Casey beat Kareem Maddox ’11 off the dribble and dunked over Patrick Saunders ’12
, drawing a foul and making the free throw.
“I pump-faked, took one dribble and tried to tear the rim off,” Casey said. “It was pretty successful.”
Princeton’s defense, which entered the game as the league’s best, was uncharacteristically sloppy. The Tigers allowed 79 points on 63 possessions, their worst effort since playing at then-No. 1 Duke in the second game of the season. Harvard beat the visitors down the floor for points after inbounding off made baskets multiple times in the first half and Princeton could not keep sophomore guard Brandyn Curry out of the lane in the second.
But the Crimson’s favorite spot on the floor was the line 15 feet from the front rim, as the hosts – the nation’s second-best free-throw shooting team – earned 30 foul shots and made all but three of them.
Harvard’s offense stagnated as it tried to kill clock in the late stages of the second period, when a 7-0 Princeton run spanning nearly five minutes cut the lead to five points. But a basket plus one from Curry – who finished with 10 points and 10 assists – stopped the slide, and Princeton would never again pull as close. The roughly 500 students clad in white T-shirts broke into their customary chant – “I believe! I believe that we just won!” – and rushed onto the floor as the clock struck zero.
Those 500 students represented nearly one-quarter of the total crowd, though it was not for lack of demand. Lavietes – the oldest Division-I gymnasium – feels more like a high school gym than a collegiate conference battleground, and the event was sold out more than a month in advance; tickets were reportedly scalped for upwards of $250 in the days leading up to the game. The Crimson athletics department said that 91 media members were given credentials for the game; while noted national personalities such as Bill Simmons and Bob Ryan sat courtside, others (i.e., this reporter) were forced to find crevices wherever possible with an unobstructed view.
As of Sunday night, no official details had been released regarding where or what time a potential neutral-site playoff would take place, but rumors have converged on Yale as the most likely location and Friday or Saturday as the date.
To force a rubber match, Princeton still needs to claim a share of the league title with a win at Penn, which forced overtime in a Tiger win at Jadwin Gymnasium one month ago. Despite some speculation that either team might merit consideration for an at-large bid to the Big Dance – particularly Harvard, given its strong nonconference résumé – the league’s second team will almost certainly end up in the NIT.
“I’ve kind of been down this road myself, so I kind of call on that,” said Johnson, who helped Princeton defeat Penn in a playoff as a junior in 1996. “I coach these games from the heart. But now it’s their time … it’s their turn to make this happen.”
With two of their top three players, Maddox and Mavraides, graduating in three months – and with a Harvard roster that does not boast a single senior – the Tigers’ time may indeed be now.