Mick Cronin knew something was off. Within the first minute of the game, the Cincinnati coach was already making substitutions trying to get the Bearcats alert.
By the time Cincinnati started playing defense the way Cronin demanded, with the aggressiveness that led to a share of the American Athletic Conference regular season title, the Bearcats could not chase down upstart Harvard.
“Defensively, we were far from our best in the first half. That was the difference in the game,” Cronin said. “It had us playing from behind all night.”
Siyani Chambers scored 11 points, including five straight in the final 2 minutes, and 12th-seeded Harvard won its second NCAA Tournament game in history, upsetting Cincinnati 61-57 on Thursday.
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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 Michigan State in the third round.
Harvard never trailed after the opening moments. They played with confidence and scrap against the fifth-seeded Bearcats. They got second and third chances at their own misses. They littered the court scrounging for loose balls.
Sean Kilpatrick led 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.
That 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 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.