SPOKANE, Wash. Those kids from Harvard are getting a passing grade when it comes to the first game of the NCAA tournament.
Ask New Mexico last year. Ask Cincinnati now.
Siyani Chambers scored 11 points, including five straight in the final two minutes, and 12th-seeded Harvard won its second NCAA tournament game in history, upsetting Cincinnati 61-57 Thursday.
Wesley Saunders led the Crimson (27-4) with 12 points as Harvard proved last year’s upset of New Mexico as a 14 seed was no fluke. The Crimson became the first Ivy League school with NCAA tournament wins in consecutive years since Princeton in 1983-84. They will play either Michigan State or Delaware in the third round.
Harvard never trailed after the opening moments. They played with confidence and scrap against the No. 5 seed Bearcats, who shared the American Athletic Conference regular season title. Sean Kilpatrick led seed Cincinnati (27-7) with 18 points, but the Bearcats failed to win a tournament game for the second straight year.
There was a reason Harvard was a popular upset pick. Even President Barack Obama had the Crimson taking out the Bearcats.
The reason: defense and balance. All five starters averaged in double figures for the season and that balance was needed against Cincinnati’s aggressive defense. Laurent Rivard, the Crimson’s 3-point specialist, finished with 11 points, while Steve Moundou-Missi and Brandyn Curry both scored nine.
Harvard also improved to 15-0 this season when holding its opponent to 60 points or less. They entered the tournament with the 13th best scoring defense in the country. That defense helped overcome a shaky performance at the free throw line where Harvard was 17 of 28.
Cincinnati had its chances. Justin Jackson finished with 13 points and 11 rebounds, but the Bearcats shot only 37 percent and missed a number of shots around the rim.
Harvard withstood the early second-half push from the Bearcats. Jackson’s dunk while being fouled and subsequent free throw pulled Cincinnati within 42-39 and Titus Rubles’ driving layup later trimmed the margin to 45-43.
The Crimson then forced turnovers on three straight Bearcats’ possessions. Saunders flipped in a driving finger roll to push the lead to five. As Harvard went to the bench for a timeout, Chambers grinned and coach Tommy Amaker pumped his fists in approval.
Harvard was not going to be denied another moment. They got second and third chances at their own misses. They littered the floor scrounging for loose balls.
Cincinnati went more than five minutes without scoring.
But the Bearcats fought back and cut the lead to one before Chambers stepped up. He hit a pullup 17-footer with 1:57 left for a 56-53 lead. Kyle Casey then drew an offensive foul against Kilpatrick with 1:33 left.
Chambers hit a trio of free throws in the final minute and Saunders sealed it hitting a pair with 11 seconds left, setting off the celebration.