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Harvard opens tourney with 'Harvard of the South'

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (AP) — Kyle Casey remembers hearing Vanderbilt called "The Harvard of the South" when he was recruited by both coming out of high school.

Vanderbilt, which has the advantage of playing in the Southeastern Conference, was in his final three with Harvard and Stanford. But Casey, who's from Medway, Mass., chose to stay close to home with the goal of trying to get Harvard back into the NCAA tournament for the first time since the Truman administration.

"I couldn't be happier with my decision to come to Harvard," the Crimson forward said Sunday after they were given a No. 12 seed and a matchup with fifth-seeded Vanderbilt in Albuquerque, N.M., in the first round of the NCAA tournament. "I'm at THE Harvard University. There's no beating that."

Harvard has not been to the NCAAs since 1946, and it had never won an Ivy League title before sharing the crown with Princeton last season. With no conference tournament, the schools played a tiebreaker for the right to the league's automatic NCAA berth, and Princeton won the game on a buzzer-beater with 2.6 seconds left.

This year, Harvard (26-4) won the Ivy title outright, clinching it when Princeton beat Penn in the regular-season finale on Tuesday. But even though they knew their name would be called during the selection show, the Crimson players still looked tense waiting for the brackets to be filled out on television.

"Last year, just praying and hoping our name is going to come up on the board, just makes the moment even more special for us," guard Brandyn Curry said.

Sitting in a function room in the school's athletic administration building, with an eight-seat crew shell suspended from the ceiling above them, the players waited as two other regions were announced. During commercials, they tapped away on their cellphones while fans at least one wearing a Jeremy Lin Harvard jersey milled around.

When they were finally announced, the players jumped into the air and hugged.

"To make the tournament and see our name come up to make it legit, all the specifics didn't mean anything to me," guard Oliver McNally said. "I love the sport of college basketball. I love the tournament; I think it's the best sporting event. This is one of the dreams I've had in my life."

He's about to experience reality.

Vanderbilt (23-10) was still in New Orleans, where it upset No. 1 overall seed Kentucky on Sunday in the SEC tournament final, when it learned that it was a No. 5 seed. The Commodores are making their third straight NCAA tournament appearance and fifth in the last six years; they have lost three straight first-round games.

"We were just excited to hear our name called," said Harvard coach Tommy Amaker, who played in the tournament when he was at Duke. "We know this great tournament is going to be as sensational as it's always been, with a number of great games that we hope to be a part of."

Harvard set a school record with 26 wins this year, breaking into The Associated Press Top 25 for the first time in its history and climbing as high as No. 21. The Crimson also won with Battle 4 Atlantis tournament over Thanksgiving, beating then-No. 22 Florida State in the process.

"We've done a lot of things a lot of players have come here to do," Casey said. "It's really humbling to do something here that's never been done before, when so many things have been done here."

Harvard's last NCAA tournament appearance was in 1946, when the Crimson lost to Ohio State and then fell to NYU in a regional third-place game. If the Crimson can win their first NCAA game ever, they would face either fourth-seeded Wisconsin and No. 13 seed Montana for a chance to reach the round of 16.

But if they do, they would be playing the regional semifinals at the TD Garden in Boston.

"I want to win. My career's over when we lose so I want it to last as long as we can," said McNally, a senior. "It's just going to be heartbreaking if you don't win. We wouldn't be competitors if that's not how we looked at each game."