Harvard's 1st NCAA win brings 'unexpected pride'

Friday , March 22, 2013 - 4:09 PM

APTOPIX NCAA Harvard New Mexico Basketball

Harvard players celebrate on the bench after beating New Mexico during a second round game in the...

Jimmy Golen

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Michael Lesley crisscrossed Harvard Yard, looking up from his copy of David Hume’s “The Natural History of Religion” only to avoid the tourists that shuffled through the snow-covered quadrangle.

Did he bother to watch Harvard’s victory over No. 10 New Mexico on Thursday night, the first NCAA tournament win in school history?

No.

Will Lesley, a fourth-year doctoral student in religion, tune in when the Crimson play Arizona for a spot in the Sweet 16 on Saturday?

“Absolutely. Are you kidding me?” he said on Friday afternoon, a day after the Ivy League champions upset the third-seeded and heavily favored Lobos 68-62 in Salt Lake City.

“I think the attitude was, ‘We’ll see what happens,’” Lesley said. “To see everyone light up, it is exciting.”

Harvard undergraduates are on spring break this week, so the dorm windows ringing the Yard were absent of the banners that usually herald, say, a big football game against Yale or a particularly innovative student production of a Samuel Beckett play. A day after the Crimson’s unprecedented NCAA win, the centuries-old quad was bustling with guided tours in English, Japanese and Spanish but largely absent of students on their way to class.

That didn’t stop the Harvard community from celebrating the victory.

“They did a good job, man, I’m happy for them,” Houston Rockets point guard Jeremy Lin, the biggest basketball star to come out of Harvard, said after the NBA team’s shootaround on Friday morning. “It’s a great win. They made history.”

Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust was in Seoul giving a speech during the game, but a spokesman said she followed the second half closely and called coach Tommy Amaker to congratulate him and the team and wish them luck in the next round.

Senior Molly Stansik missed the game because she was on a flight back from a spring break trip to Puerto Rico. There were eight or nine other Harvard students on the plane, and one of them was able to stream the basketball game on his computer.

“I could hear him across the plane,” Stansik said. “Everyone was screaming and reacting accordingly.”

Although it has been quiet on campus with the undergrads on break, Lesley watched as the students were able to bond over social media. He followed the reaction on Facebook and said, “Everyone’s rather thrilled.”

“At a place like this, people are talking about the first win in 377 years, as if basketball has been around as long,” Lesley said with a chuckle. “There’s just a lot of unexpected pride.”

The oldest and most prestigious university in the nation, Harvard has produced a handful of U.S. presidents, dozens of Nobel Laureates and enough bankers, lawyers and politicians (and comedy writers) to prompt the Harvard Lampoon to tweet after the game: “America, we are sorry for messing up your brackets and also your financial system and everything else.”

The Crimson football team won the Rose Bowl in the leather-helmet days and famously tied Yale in 1968, and the Harvard rowers can hold their own against Oxford and Cambridge in the Henley Regatta. The school has placed first in the annual U.S. News & World Report academic rankings for the fifth consecutive year.

But, until recently, the school has had little to brag about in basketball.

Then Lin emerged as an NBA star. Harvard won a share of its first-ever Ivy League basketball title in 2011. And, last year, the Crimson won the conference championship outright to earn a spot in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1946. (They lost to Vanderbilt 79-70.)

The chances of a repeat were said to be doomed when Harvard’s senior co-captains withdrew from school last fall in the wake of a plagiarism investigation. But senior Christian Webster, who played little last year, and freshman Siyani Chambers emerged to lead the Crimson to a third straight Ivy title.

And then Harvard pulled off the biggest surprise of the second round, knocking out the Mountain West champions and earning the school’s first-ever victory over a team ranked in The Associated Press Top 10. (Only 4.5 percent of the more than 3 million brackets collected by Yahoo Sports picked the Crimson to win.)

“They had a rough year, losing the two team captains and relying a lot on freshmen and sophomore players,” said Lin, who graduated in 2010 and never made it to the NCAAs. “It’s just pretty cool.”

And maybe now Harvard is, too.

“You could tell, even last night, just everyone saying ‘nerd, geek, whatever, whatever, whatever,’” Lin said. “All that stuff, they keep saying it and, yeah, it’s a joke. But I think eventually people will realize that even though you go to Harvard, you can still hoop.”

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