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Harvard 61, Columbia 42

Crimson in position of strength

If Harvard wins next four, it’s in

By Mark Blaudschun
Globe Staff / February 20, 2011

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NEW YORK — Now it is clear for the Harvard basketball team. If coach Tommy Amaker’s team wins its remaining four games, the Crimson will be making their first trip to the NCAA Tournament since 1946.

If you ask Amaker about that, he will laugh and say that’s a lot of “ifs,’’ with road games next weekend at Brown and Yale, and home games the following weekend against Penn and Princeton.

But what is different this morning is that Harvard clearly controls its destiny, needing help from no one to chase a dream.

What changed was that Brown upset Princeton, 75-65, last night, while Harvard was taking care of business with an impressive 61-42 win over Columbia at Levien Gymnasium. Princeton’s loss was its first in the Ivy this season (20-5, 8-1), leaving the Tigers with the same number of league losses as the Crimson (20-4, 9-1).

Against Columbia (14-10, 5-5), the Crimson basically staged a repeat of their Friday night win at Cornell, playing well enough in a variety of areas. Harvard played tough defense at the start (Columbia missed 11 of its first 12 shots), forged a 29-20 halftime lead, then rolled to another easy victory.

Columbia came in averaging 68.5 points in league games, with only one in which it was held to fewer than 66 — a 30-point loss to Princeton in which it was held to 46.

If Amaker and Co. went into their meeting with the Lions wanting to expunge any Princeton superiority, they made significant inroads.

One of the strong points of the Crimson’s season has been an ability to rotate star of the game honors. In the win over Cornell, guard Brandyn Curry assumed a more aggressive role on offense.

Last night, it was guard Oliver McNally, who made six of his first seven shots, finished with 15 points, and was one of four Crimson in double figures. Forward Keith Wright provided the muscle with a 16-point, 12-rebound double-double.

“We could care less [who plays a starring role],’’ said McNally, a 6-foot-3-inch junior. “We all get along so well, and it really doesn’t matter whether it’s Keith or Brandyn. Like I said, we could care less about how it’s done as long as it gets done.’’

The Lions tried to roar, cutting the deficit to single digits a few times in the second half, but each time Amaker and Harvard responded.

If Amaker sensed a change in tempo, he would call a 30-second timeout and get his team settled. By halfway through the second half, the only remaining question was whether Columbia would finish with its fewest points of the season, which it did.

“I thought we had a complete effort,’’ said Amaker. “It was total balance and it was pretty good for a Saturday night at the end of a road trip. The beauty of our team is that our guys are so unselfish. We have good balance. I love coaching them.’’

The Crimson are doing the right things with the right people in the right places at the right time.

As much as he could, Amaker downplayed the significance of Princeton’s loss.

“I did hear that,’’ he said. “But there are a lot of twists and turns before this is over.’’

McNally said Princeton losing does little other than give the Crimson even more incentive to continue their quest for an NCAA bid, which is a little closer than it was 24 hours ago.

“We are in control of what happens,’’ said McNally. “But we have a ways to go yet.’’

Mark Blaudschun can be reached at blaudschun@globe.com.