March Madness Comes Early for the Ivy League

Posted by mpatton on February 26th, 2012

Matt Patton is an RTC correspondent. He filed this report from Saturday’s Harvard-Penn game in Cambridge.

With just under two minutes and thirty seconds left to play in the biggest Ivy League matchup of the season, Zack Rosen cut Harvard‘s lead over Penn to one. The lead had gradually dwindled from nine points six and a half minutes earlier, despite four opportunities for the Crimson to push the lead to double digits. Forty seconds later Henry Brooks fouled out, sending Kyle Casey to the charity stripe where he re-upped Harvard’s lead to three. Rosen answered again. A missed three from Harvard senior co-captain Oliver McNally meant the Quakers possessed the ball with just under a minute left only down one.

Zack Rosen Scored Penn's Last 9 Points to Lead the Quakers over Harvard. (credit: Meghan Cadet / Daily Pennsylvanian)

This was Harvard’s year. The Crimson are the most deep, talented, and experienced team in the Ivy League. Talk to coach Tommy Amaker and he’ll praise the team’s “bench and balance” repeatedly. Prior to conference play, the only true slip-up for the Crimson was their loss at Fordham. Amaker’s team (which didn’t lose any players from last year’s team) blitzed the nonconference slate compared to its prospective challengers. Princeton started the season 1-5 before finally righting the ship; Yale fared slightly better, but against far worse competition; and Penn couldn’t crack .500. After drubbing Yale on the road 65-35, the Harvard hype grew to an all-time high.

After Fran Dougherty grabbed an offensive board, Penn coach Jerome Allen called a timeout. Everyone in sold out Laveites Pavilion knew where the ball was headed. Rosen owned the Quakers’ last seven points. This was his moment. The senior inbounded the ball, immediately stepping in and taking a handoff from Rob Belcore near halfcourt. Rosen proceeded to drive straight past Brandyn Curry, the Ivy League’s best on-ball defender, forcing Casey to send him to the line with 23 seconds left.

The Crimson looked great through its first 11 games of conference play. The only misstep came at Princeton, on the second half of the toughest Ivy weekend. Ivy schools play every Friday and Saturday, so there’s very little prep time in between games. Harvard’s traveling partner is Dartmouth, the owner of one conference win through 12 games, which allows teams to put nearly all of the emphasis on the Crimson in practice leading up to the weekend. Behind the Harvard hoopla Penn kept winning, sitting only one loss back in the standings.

Rosen, an 88% free throw shooter, knocked down both free throws, giving Penn its first lead since the under-eight media timeout in the first half. There was still plenty of time to get a good shot for Harvard. Amaker did not call a timeout. Freshman Corbin Miller took a semi-contested three with under 10 seconds left. A scramble for the rebound kept the ball in Harvard’s possession with 5.7 seconds on the game clock. Across the court Allen signaled for a 30-second timeout.

Harvard Still Controls its Own Destiny in the Ivy League Race (credit: Harvard Crimson)

Although the Crimson fell out of the Top 25, replaced by Creighton after the loss at Fordham, they still made plenty of “Teams To Watch” lists. The media rightfully loved the team’s story: Upstarts from a school with no history led by a likable former major conference coach now owned the second-longest home winning streak in college basketball. Think of Steve Fisher’s San Diego State team without athletic scholarships and with major academic recruiting restrictions. Pile on Linsanity and the Crimson were nationally relevant in basketball for the first time ever. Other than semi-weekly tweets from Andy Glockner and a couple of blogger profiles on Rosen, Penn continued sailing under the radar.

Trying to guard Harvard on a final possession is complicated. All five players on the floor could have taken the final shot. Casey was the best athlete on the floor. But McNally hits more than his share of clutch free throws, Curry is the best creator and talented freshman Wesley Saunders sported the night’s best stat line. Keeping Curry back near the timeline in case of a defensive emergency and the sharp-shooter Miller in the right corner, Saunders and Casey were closest to the inbounder. Casey broke left, Saunders fell to the weak side to increase spacing and set himself up for a potential offensive board.

A Quaker win in Cambridge ties Penn and Harvard in the loss column. Because of scheduling Harvard still owns an edge, with its only remaining games coming at Columbia and Cornell next weekend. Meanwhile Penn will play host to Yale and Brown before traveling to Princeton to wrap up its schedule. But the likelihood of another playoff for the Ivy League’s automatic NCAA Tournament bid skyrocketed Saturday. The likelihood of Harvard having to sweat out Selection Sunday skyrocketed too.

Casey split defenders Dougherty and Belcore as he drove. Tyler Bernardini somehow rotated on time as Casey puts up the potential game-winner. The two collided as the ball kissed off the glass and in. The Harvard student section roared, jumping up in down in a celebration that shook the ad hoc pressbox attached to the top of the bleachers. The celebration quickly quieted as each individual realized the referee signaled an offensive foul, not the game-winning basket. The noise remained, but the students stood motionless — many still yelling — too shocked to even switch their cheers to boos.

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