At midnight tonight, Harvard will face Denver in the first round of the Great Alaska Shootout, a three-game tournament that includes Indiana State, Tulsa and Green Bay, among others. If recent history is any indication, the Crimson should be confident entering this weekend’s event: In its last midseason tournament appearance two years ago, which also took place outside the continental U.S. during Thanksgiving, Harvard won three games to claim the first-ever Battle 4 Atlantis championship — elevating the team to its current position on the national stage.
Around the Ivy League and perhaps the region, hardcore fans knew Harvard was loaded. The Crimson had earned some attention by winning a share of its first-ever Ivy League title the previous March, and although that season ended in buzzer-beating heartbreak, Harvard returned essentially everyone in 2011-12 and won its first three games of that season. Still, the bracket seemed to set up a championship battle between defending national champion UConn and surging Florida State, the two nationally ranked squads in the field.
As it turned out, those teams did indeed play an overtime thriller on the final day — but it came in the third-place game.
After trouncing Utah in the first round, Harvard faced Florida State in its semifinal, a game that was not NBC Sports Network’s (then Versus) prettiest two hours of programming. The Crimson managed only 14 points in the first half — but it held FSU to the same, matching the lowest combined Division I halftime score in the shot-clock era. The Seminoles missed their first 16 shots and didn’t score for the first 11 minutes, yet were still tied thanks to Harvard’s ghastly 3-for-23 shooting.
(Fun fact: That wasn’t even Florida State’s worst offensive half against an Ivy League team in the 2011-12 season: A month later, the Seminoles scored just 10 first-half points in a three-overtime loss to Princeton. Naturally, FSU went on to beat UNC and Duke twice apiece, win the ACC tournament and earn a 3-seed in the NCAA tourney.)
Both teams went nearly four-and-a-half minutes without a field goal early in the second half, but then the game finally opened up. After Michael Snaer briefly gave the Seminoles a 24-23 lead, Harvard reeled off an 11-2 run, including a pair of Laurent Rivard threes. Brandyn Curry added a dagger three-pointer in the final minute to hold off FSU in what coach Tommy Amaker called “a very unusual type of game.”
In the final, Harvard faced Central Florida, which had upset then-No. 4 UConn in the other semifinal. The Crimson defense — which held all three Atlantis opponents under 50 points — was dominant again, allowing the Knights to shoot 33 percent in a 59-49 win, cementing its championship trophy.
Harvard celebrates the inaugural Battle 4 Atlantis championship in November 2011. Photo via GoCrimson.com.
The week before the Battle 4 Atlantis, Harvard had received a total of one vote in the coaches’ poll and three in the AP. But after its Bahamas run, the Crimson vaulted into the second “others receiving votes” slot; the following week, it was in the top 25 of both major polls for the first time in program history. Harvard returned to the national rankings in February, still partly riding its victories over FSU and UCF, helping the Harvard basketball brand resonate with the nation through the Curry and Casey drama in 2012, the NCAA tournament victory last spring, and this season’s preseason hype.
There are no nationally ranked teams in this season’s Great Alaska Shootout field, and even if Harvard wins this weekend’s tournament, it won’t have nearly the same effect as the Battle 4 Atlantis did two years ago. But Denver and potentially Tulsa or Indiana State are quality opponents, and for a Crimson team that struggled when pressed by Colorado late on Sunday, any challenges now will be helpful come March.