SPOKANE, Wash. — 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.
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 either Michigan State or Delaware 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.
It all meant another upset for the Crimson, even if the coaches involved didn’t see it that way.
“In my mind, today’s game was anything but an upset,” 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.”
Sean Kilpatrick led Cincinnati (27-7) with 18 points, but the Bearcats failed to win a tournament game for the second straight year. Kilpatrick, one of the top scorers in the country, saw Harvard run a flurry of different defenders in his direction. He didn’t score for the first 10 minutes then was only able to get off four shots in the second half.
“They played pretty good defense and we were missing opportunities,” Kirkpatrick said. “That was really it.”
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. That defense helped overcome a shaky performance at the free throw line where Harvard was 17 of 28.
“We always find ways to get around that,” Rivard said. “We had to make other plays because we were not making our free throws.”
Cincinnati had its chances. Justin Jackson finished with 13 points and 11 rebounds, but the Bearcats shot only 37 percent from the field and missed a number of shots in close.
“I missed a lot of opportunities around the rim,” Jackson said. “I usually don’t do that going one-handed flipping the ball. I can’t really comment on that, just bad on my part and I was not finishing around the rim.”
Harvard withstood the early second-half push from the Bearcats that was largely caused by Cincinnati’s trapping press defense. Jackson’s dunk while being fouled and subsequent free throw pulled Cincinnati within 42-39 and Titus Rubles’ driving layup later trimmed the margin to 45-43.
The Crimson then forced turnovers on three straight possessions. Saunders flipped in a driving finger roll to push the lead to five. As Harvard went to the bench for a timeout, Chambers grinned and coach Tommy Amaker pumped his fists in approval.
Harvard was not going to be denied another moment. They got second and third chances at their own misses. They littered the floor scrounging for loose balls.
Cincinnati went more than 5 minutes without scoring.
But the Bearcats fought back and cut the lead to one before Chambers stepped up. He hit a pullup 17-footer with 1:57 left for a 56-53 lead. Kyle Casey then drew an offensive foul against Kilpatrick with 1:33 left.
Chambers hit three free throws in the final minute and Saunders sealed it hitting two more with 11 seconds left, setting off the celebration.
“They got real players. They got high major players,” Cronin said. “They can play against anybody.”