Hardly an upset: Harvard tops Cincinnati, returns to Round of 32

One year ago, Harvard won its first NCAA tournament game ever, to the surprise of the nation. The Crimson’s story was known nationally, but hardly anyone expected Harvard, a double-digit underdog to New Mexico, to do what only a handful of No. 14-seeds had done before and knock off a No. 3-seed. But behind hot shooting by Laurent Rivard and Christian Webster, the Crimson did just that, stunning the Lobos in a first-round nightcap.

On Thursday afternoon, Harvard won its second NCAA tournament game ever — and this time, it didn’t feel like an upset. The No. 12-seed Crimson simply outplayed No. 5-seed Cincinnati in a game between two very good, if flawed, basketball teams, returning to the Round of 32 with a 61-57 victory.

“In my mind, today’s game was anything but an upset.” Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said. “They’ve got a great team — tough draw for us. In my opinion, they’re one of the best teams we played all year.”

A main reason the Crimson’s victory didn’t feel like a big upset is that, well, it really wasn’t. The Bearcats were favored, but only by about three points, a line more befitting a 7-10 game. Harvard was dinged seeding points for its lack of “quality wins,” while a long midseason win streak raised Cincinnati’s profile, but the true talent gap between the two teams was never expected to be large.

Sure, there were brief stretches where the Crimson appeared to be in over its heads. Early in the first half, Cincinnati grabbed five offensive rebounds on one endless possession; the Bearcats finished the game with a 40% offensive rebound rate. And late in the period, the Crimson committed three turnovers in four possessions against a Cincinnati press, which caused problems throughout the game.

But despite those issues, as well as foul trouble that limited Wesley Saunders’ and Kyle Casey’s minutes, Harvard led 36-29 at halftime. Some of those 36 points required a fair amount of fortune, but others showed Harvard matching or one-upping Cincinnati’s imposing inside defense:

(GIF via SBNation)

Cincinnati rallied early in the second half, scoring 10 points on four consecutive possessions to pull within two points. This was the spot where, if Harvard was truly an underdog, it would have likely succumbed. Instead, the Crimson defense held Cincinnati scoreless over the following six minutes. Though Harvard’s poor free-throw shooting (17-for-28) and a few ugly offensive possessions kept the Bearcats close, they never tied or led the game in the second half.

Siyani Chambers hit a pull-up jumper from the free-throw line to break open a one-point game in the penultimate minute; Kyle Casey drew a charge on Cincinnati star Sean Kilpatrick on the following possession, and the Crimson locked up its victory from there.

The Bearcats’ offense is ugly in the best of times (ranking 249th nationally in effective field goal percentage), and against Harvard’s quality defense, contested layups and errant jumpers incessantly clanked off the rims. Cincinnati shot a putrid 10-for-26 at the rim (Harvard was 10-for-18), and made only seven of 19 two-point jumpers.

Kilpatrick showed flashes of brilliance, but for the game, Saunders and Brandyn Curry held the potential All-America to a mediocre outing — 18 points on 15 shooting possessions and five turnovers, including an unforced error in the final minute.

At the final buzzer, of course there was joy for the Crimson; any NCAA tournament victory is worth celebration, especially the second in team history (and the first individually for Casey and Curry). But on the court, across the college basketball twittersphere, and even in the West Wing, there was certainly no surprise.

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