Bob Ryan

Crimson do their part when needed

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / March 6, 2011

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The question was never about the talent. The question was this: Was Harvard ready to seize the moment?

No Harvard basketball team had ever gone this deep into the season with a chance to win the Ivy League championship. We’re talking 55 years of uncharted waters.

It was the biggest game in the history of Harvard basketball, no question. Lavietes Pavilion had been sold out for weeks. There was talk of scalpers getting 300 bucks. You know what? It was worth it. Harvard answered all the questions in the affirmative, following up Friday night’s needed triumph over Penn with an even more impressive 79-67 conquest of traditional Ivy League behemoth Princeton last night, a victory that ensures the Crimson at least a tie for the regular-season title, pending Tuesday’s Penn-Princeton finale in The Palestra.

Need it be said that Harvard is the only team in the 55-year history of the Ivy League without so much as one championship? Need it be said that Tommy Amaker’s team, the first in Harvard history to win 20 games once, let alone twice, has raised local expectations to a point where these kids are playing under a pressure unknown to any previous Harvard squad?

That’s why what took place at the suddenly rockin’ Lavietes Pavilion these past two nights is beyond satisfying for the coach and his staff. The Harvard players not only won the two games they absolutely had to win, they did so in magnificent style.

They took care of business early on Friday, moving to a 22-point halftime lead en route to a nice cruise-gear triumph. Last night, they did it by negotiating their way through a truly spectacular first half back-and-forth battle (nine ties and 18 lead changes) and then taking firm control in the final 20 minutes, grabbing the lead at 39-38 on a Christian Webster leaner, expanding it to 12 (64-52) with 9:44 remaining, and then making the necessary plays to ensure victory after Princeton had come within 5 (64-59) with 5:18 to play.

“We had determination, conviction, and great effort,’’ lauded Amaker. “I thought we had a great sense of resolve. We didn’t talk about desperation, or anything like that, before the game. We talked about staying within ourselves. Sometimes in a special moment like this you get out of character and don’t play smart. That never happened. We talked about following our assignments, not making silly mistakes. We talked about executing our game, playing our system. We’re very happy with ourselves.’’

They should be. It’s very possible Harvard came up with its two best start-to-finish games in the two most important games of the year.

Sophomore Kyle Casey, a Big East/ACC/Big Ten talent gracing the Ivies with his presence, was sensational, scoring a season-high 24 points while making plays no coach will ever teach. Keith Wright patrolled the middle, scoring inside while blocking six shots. Oliver McNally went 10 for 10 from the line.

But the key to everything in both of these games was point guard Brandyn Curry, a sophomore from Huntersville, N.C., who had 14 assists on Friday and 10 more last evening, continually breaking down both defenses while finding both Wright inside for easy layups and the likes of Webster, McNally, and Laurent Rivard for inside-out threes. Somewhere in America a ballyhooed power conference point guard might have exceeded Curry’s mastery of the position this weekend. But I doubt it.

Curry made the single biggest play of the night. With the Crimson in the midst of a prolonged scoring drought after a Casey jumper had given them the 64-52 lead, Curry ended it after an agonizing 4 minutes and 51 seconds with an aggressive 3-point excursion to the hoop. You can pretty much say Harvard never looked back after that.

There is no way to exaggerate the scope of Harvard’s achievement these past two nights. The Crimson simply had to win in order to keep their NCAA hopes alive. And they had to defeat the two schools who have been tyrannizing the Ivies for the past 40 years. They also had to do so with the terrible specter of negative history everywhere around them.

It’s obvious Amaker has assembled a very nice Ivy League team. But it hasn’t won anything yet, and there will almost certainly be one more stern test ahead. What Harvard needs now in order to avoid having to defeat Princeton in a tiebreaking playoff game at some neutral site is for Penn to defeat Princeton Tuesday evening in Philadelphia. That, frankly, is unlikely. Harvard should count on having to lace ’em up against Princeton for a third time.

There is no longer any doubt that Harvard has enough talent to win the Ivy league. You wouldn’t reasonably ask for a better Ivy League big man than the 6-foot-8-inch Wright, who is a bull and who has a Big Baby-like ambidexterity inside. You wouldn’t reasonably ask for a better Ivy League forward package than the 6-7 Casey, who is quick, owns a pretty good midrange shot, and whose big-time athleticism manifested itself in the form of a driving baseline traffic dunk of a 3-point play. He’s a serious player.

Now they have something to hang their hat on. They created a situation where the gym was full, where the basketball atmosphere was as good as you’ll find anywhere, and they delivered. They have now seen the fans rush the court because of something they have done. They have a feeling of achievement.

Princeton is well-coached. Princeton is smart. Princeton is clever. Princeton has a young man named Kareem Maddox, who has a whole bunch of smooth inside moves. Most of all, Princeton has that pedigree.

But Harvard now has more talent. Harvard’s time has come. And if Harvard does have to play that game, and something goes wrong, well, Amaker has the entire team back, plus some nice recruits. Harvard is coming, and Harvard will not be stopped.