SPOKANE, Wash. — Harvard, which once went 66 years between NCAA Tournament appearances, waited just one year between upset victories in the event.
The Crimson, seeded 12th in the West Regional, knocked off fifth-seeded Cincinnati 61-57 Thursday in second-round action at the Spokane Arena.
Last year, Harvard was seeded 14th when the Ivy League squad downed third-seeded New Mexico 68-62 in the second round. That was the first NCAA Tournament victory in five tries for the Crimson, who are making their third straight appearance in the tournament after a lapse from 1946 to 2012.
“I think that we have become a program that’s become relevant in the world of college basketball,” Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said.
Junior guard Wesley Saunders, the Ivy League Player of the Year, led Harvard’s balanced attack with 12 points. The Crimson (27-4) led almost all the way against the Bearcats (27-7), though the leads were rarely more than four points.
“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, that’s one of the best teams we played all year.”
The Crimson led 36-29 at the half after making half of their shots and holding Cincinnati to 35.5 percent shooting. Harvard finished at 43.2 percent from the field, compared to 36.8 percent for the Bearcats.
“We missed a lot of layups,” Cronin said.
Senior guard Sean Kilpatrick led Cincinnati with 18 points, but he committed a game-high five turnovers. Saunders hounded Kilpatrick on defense much of the game.
“Our game plan was to put best defender on him — Wesley Saunders,” Harvard point guard Siyani Chambers said. “He’s done it for us all year.”
Kilpatrick was limited to four shots and seven points in the second half.
“Every time we tried to free him, they doubled him,” Cronin said. “At times, we did get him the ball and he tried to advance it to the basket, and they put four guys on him.”
Cronin and Amaker praised Chambers, who stole the ball from Kilpatrick and eventually sank three of four free throws in the final 40 seconds. Cincinnati had pulled within one when Chambers — who had made just one of nine shots from the field at that point — buried a jumper from near the free-throw line to boost Harvard’s lead to 56-53 with 1:55 to go.
“He’s our most important player,” Amaker said. “We have talked about Wesley being our best player, but Siyani’s our most important.
“That’s been the case for us throughout the whole season. He makes it all go for us. We needed the ball in his hands to make the decisions and plays.
“Sometimes I heap a lot on his shoulders, and I’ve got to remember he’s just a sophomore.”
The 27 wins are a record for the Crimson, who won 26 in 2011-12. Harvard carries a nine-game winning streak into Saturday’s game against the winner of Thursday night’s Michigan State-Delaware contest.
Cincinnati and Harvard rank among the nation’s stingiest defensive teams, and Amaker said the game was ugly at times. Bearcats forward Justin Jackson led all players with 11 rebounds and four blocked shots, and he scored 13 points, but he missed a number of layups and finished 5-for-15 from the field.
Chambers and guard Laurent Rivard both scored 11 points for the Crimson. Guard Brandyn Curry and forward Steve Moundou-Missi each added nine points before a crowd of 10,862.
The Crimson improved to 15-0 when holding opponents to fewer than 60 points.
NOTES: Prior to 2012, the Crimson’s only NCAA Tournament appearance came in 1946. … Harvard is 35-123 all-time against teams in this year’s tournament. That includes a 1-2 record this season, with losses to Colorado and Connecticut. … Cincinnati G Sean Kilpatrick, who was selected to several All-America first teams, is a finalist for the Wooden, Oscar Robinson and Naismith awards for college player of the year. Kilpatrick played in his 140th game, breaking the school record he shared with Cashmere Wright (2010-13).