By Scott Reed
Philadelphia, PA - The scoreboard lights at the Palestra had barely been extinguished, erasing the evidence of Harvard's 83-82 triumph over the Penn Quakers, when Harvard basketball coach Tommy Amaker reflected on the wild, wild finish.
"It was a game in which either team could have come out on top," said Amaker. Any member of the raucous crowd of 6,283 would surely agree, but the Crimson were the ones who made the deciding plays, and as close as the razor was between victory and defeat, that says something about this team.
There were many times this team could have folded. They could have folded after Penn had completed its monster comeback to send the game into overtime. They could have given up when Zac Rosen beat the buzzer to force a second overtime ("Its like your heart gets ripped out," said Junior Co-Captain Oliver McNally of Rosen's dagger). They could have given up after the Quakers jumped out to a five point lead minutes into that double-OT. They could have even called it quits for the weekend after a heartbreaking loss to Princeton the night before. But they didn't. And thats the point.
This is a young but talented Harvard team, quite possibly the most gifted of any of the 100 Harvard basketball squads to date. Yet for all of the progress Amaker has made at Harvard, his teams had yet to close out a matchup against the elite of the Ivy League in a game that had championship implications. Last year, for example, in the program's then-biggest game, Harvard was shellacked by more than 30 points at Cornell. They later lost to both Princeton and Cornell at home in games that went down to the wire. And they had fallen this past Friday to Princeton, in the first contest against the top half of the Ivy League (Cornell has since proven a tougher rebuilding job than was first thought).
Some might say the matchup with Princeton was the bigger game of the weekend, but the game Saturday night in the Palestra was a game championship teams have to win: on the road, the night after a loss, against a hostile crowd, and after giving up a big lead. And Harvard came through tonight in a way it hadn't before, which opens the door to new possibilities as the season progresses. The Crimson now know they can come through in the clutch in a conference game, and that is itself significant, something that could make this game echo well into March.
Granted, this team has a long way to go, especially after falling to Princeton on Friday to fall behind the Tigers in the Ivy standings. Next week's matchup with Yale looms large. And there are surely things to dislike if you are a member of the Harvard coaching staff. Losing an eighteen point lead is one of them, and Harvard's usually-automatic free throw shooting faltered a bit down the stretch. But the greater significance is that the Crimson were able to overcome those mistakes and still win.
"We were fortunate enough to bounce back [tonight]," said Amaker. Not just fortunate enough, Coach. Tough enough.
Scott Reed is the play-by-play commentator for Harvard football and men's basketball.