After Winning Finale, Harvard Learns Of Ivy Playoff

After losing to Yale the previous night, Harvard entered Saturday needing a win and a Yale loss to earn a share of the Ivy title. The Crimson’s game tipped an hour earlier, so when they finished a 72-62 victory over Brown, the Bulldogs still had 20 minutes left to play at Dartmouth. With their fate out of their hands, Harvard’s locker room was feeling, in the words of senior Wesley Saunders, apprehensive.

“We feel happy about the way we played for the most part, so things are positive,” Saunders said while the Bulldogs nursed a small lead midway through the half. “Everybody was in there keeping up with [Yale-Dartmouth] on Gamecast or whatever. So we’ll see what happens.”

The Crimson’s mood upgraded to ecstatic about an hour later, when Gabas Maldunas’ last-second shot stunned the Bulldogs in Hanover. Dartmouth’s win dropped Yale into a tie with Harvard at 11-3, yielding co-champions and a one-game playoff to determine the Ivy League’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.

Coach Tommy Amaker and most of Harvard’s players were watching the action at a post-Senior Night reception. A few players hung around Lavietes Pavilion and crowded around the scorer’s table for the final minutes, erupting with joy when they saw Maldunas’ game-winner:

“We’ve all talked about how our league is, and in particular how our league is on Saturday night. It’s crazy. We’ve seen it all, and certainly we’re thrilled to call ourselves Ivy champs,” Amaker said later in the evening. “Now we get a playoff, and we’re very hopeful that we’ll be up for round three against Yale.”

Harvard is no stranger to scoreboard-watching — usually with good results. Saturday’s postgame was a flashback to 2013, when the Crimson beat Cornell on the last day of the regular season to clinch a share of the Ivy title, then secured a tournament bid when Brown upset Princeton later in the evening. In 2012, Harvard’s players watched from their dorms as they earned their first-ever March Madness invite when Penn lost at Princeton.

This year, their reward is merely a share of the Ivy title, the Crimson’s fifth in five years. Harvard and Yale will meet in a one-game playoff Saturday at The Palestra, the first since 2011, to determine who advances to the NCAA tournament. (The time is still to be determined.)

The drama in Hanover would have meant nothing had Harvard not taken care of business at home on Saturday. The first half looked like a repeat of Friday’s game, as Brown led 28-27 thanks to 5-10 shooting on three-pointers, while the Crimson missed all five of their long-range attempts. (Siyani Chambers did swish a 70-footer, but it came after the halftime buzzer.)

In the second half, Harvard’s fortunes finally turned. Chambers swished three triples in the first six minutes, while Saunders added another. With the Crimson ahead by five, Saunders pulled up with an open three-point shot in transition — but instead skipped a pass to Corbin Miller on the opposite wing. Miller’s trey rippled through the net, snapping an 0-12 shooting streak; he hit his next two jumpers as well.

“Playing the percentages, you just have to keep giving Corbin the ball,” Saunders said. “He heats up quickly, so I knew it was only a matter of time before he was going to string some together.”

Seven Harvard seniors were honored before Saturday’s game, and many were key in the victory. Kenyatta Smith scored 12 points on 6-7 shooting, while Steve Moundou-Missi had a game-high 14 rebounds and Saunders dished 10 assists.

Jonah Travis added 12 points and nine rebounds, getting them in creative ways, as usual. He tracked down one second-half rebound that was headed for the baseline and saved it between his legs as he fell out of bounds. The ball eventually found its way to Miller for his second three, putting Harvard up by double digits.

“We’ve always talked about Jonah being our blue-collar guy — we refer to him in the positive sense as our ‘junkyard dog’ — our guy who’s going to mix things up, be a warrior around the basket and outhustle people,” Amaker said. “Throughout his recruitment, we knew he had a special quality in that regard — he wasn’t going to let people outwork him.”

Saturday was the final game of Brown senior Rafael Maia’s career; he went out with a double-double as the only player comfortable scoring inside against Harvard’s front line. Cedric Kuakumensah led the Bears with 23 points, including three treys and an impressive pull-up jumper.

Brown finished the year at 4-10 in Ivy play (13-18 overall). In this year’s balanced league, the Bears will finish in last place — either alone or tied with Penn, pending the Quakers’ final game against Princeton on Tuesday.

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