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Bob Ryan

Princeton won, but nobody lost

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By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / March 13, 2011

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NEW HAVEN — Put ’em both in, I say, and I don’t care how parochial that sounds.

Princeton goes to the NCAA Tournament for the 24th time, and it deserves to be there. Junior guard Douglas Davis capped a spectacular final minute of mutual excellence yesterday with a sweet upfake and swish of a 15-footer from the left on an inbounds play, a shot so perilously close to the buzzer it had to be reviewed before Princeton was declared a 63-62 winner over a Harvard team that is every bit its equal.

No Ivy League team ever has received an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. But if it’s going to happen, this would be the appropriate year. The so-called power conferences are laden with mediocre teams. Some of the better mid-major leagues are having down years, with few deserving teams.

So would it somehow disturb the natural order of things in the college basketball world if the tournament committee rewarded an Ivy cochampion with an RPI of 35 that was beaten in a playoff game on a shot with no time left?

Here’s one thing I know: Princeton and Harvard are both superbly coached and they are a lot more enjoyable to watch than most of those sloppy teams from the power conferences.

Perhaps what the committee needs to see, again and again, are the final three possessions of this wonderful game. For this was a game that was won, not lost, a game that was decided by the positive actions of terrific young athletes. There were no fateful, alien whistles to distort or interfere with the momentum or create confusion and angst.

Here’s what the committee would see:

1. With Princeton leading, 59-58, Harvard’s Kyle Casey executes a textbook right-to-left drive, culminating with a sweet move to the hoop with his left, or off, hand at 58.7.

2. Princeton’s Ian Hummer answers with an aggressive drive of his own at 37.3.

3. Harvard’s Brandyn Curry, a master of improvisation, slithers into the lane as a play breaks down and slips in a layup in heavy traffic, putting Harvard ahead, 62-61, at 11.1.

4. Princeton’s Douglas Davis, a stocky point guard, takes it to the hoop but Casey sends it out of bounds at 2.8 as Princeton calls time out to set up a final shot. Dan Mavraides makes the inbounds pass, Davis makes a classic upfake to get Harvard defender Oliver McNally (who played a superb game) into the air, and then Davis makes the shot of his life, the ball in the air as the buzzer goes off.

Let the celebration and the concurrent weeping begin.

The depth of the Harvard heartbreak is immeasurable. It has been pointed out no fewer than 7 million times in the past week that Harvard last went to the NCAA Tournament in 1946 and that Harvard is the only member of the Ivy League, which was officially formed for the 1955-56 season, that has yet to earn the league’s automatic NCAA berth. The players recruited by coach Tommy Amaker were poised to make Harvard history.

“We are certainly heartbroken and devastated,’’ said Amaker. “Both teams deserved to win this basketball game. That’s a fair statement.’’

“We would have been crushed, no doubt, had that shot not gone in,’’ said Princeton mentor Sydney Johnson. “I was ready to shake hands with Tommy Amaker, because we had done what we wanted to do. I’m just happy I had a smile on my face.’’

He can thank his point guard.

“Doug has an amazing mid-range game,’’ Mavraides said. “He’s going to make seven out of 10 of those.’’

Oh, the inevitable coulda/woulda/shouldas the Harvard players will carry into next season, when they all will be back and will be augmented by what is said to be a powerhouse recruiting class.

Harvard led by 7 at the half and 9 (34-25) after the opening possession of the second half. Harvard led every bit of the way from 21-20 to 50-48, and then raised its level when challenged by a Princeton team that does not ordinarily beat itself.

The Crimson didn’t really “blow’’ the lead, or allow the game to slip away. But there were little cracks, and Princeton took full advantage. Princeton was 14 for 15 from the line, for example, making its last eight. Harvard was 10 for 16, and there were three damaging misses in the final five minutes. Things like that matter when you’re trying to rewrite history.

And the boards . . . Princeton had 14 offensive rebounds. That hurts.

“We are one of the better foul shooting teams in the country,’’ said Amaker. “Not today.

“And I think their ability to get on the backboards hurt us.’’

The atmosphere at the John J. Lee Amphitheater was A-plus. This place looks like it could serve as the rec room for Skull & Bones, with its archaic wooden theater seats and its 1930s feel. The acoustics are phenomenal, and I am here to tell you that when the game was over, my ears were ringing, big-time. It was the perfect gym in which to showcase these two excellent teams.

What must be understood is that Harvard wasn’t the only team trying to achieve a goal, Princeton basketball bottomed out a while back. Johnson was brought in to fix things, and he was hardly an instant success, going 6-23 in his first year.

There was a painstaking, and very quiet, advance in the past three years as Cornell dominated the league. In other words, none of these Princeton kids ever had won the Ivy League, either. This was a very special moment for Princeton seniors Kareem Maddox and Mavraides.

The questions for the Tigers as they gather around the TV sets to watch the Selection Show tonight are what seed they will be (I’m guessing 13), whom they will play, and where they will go.

As for Harvard, the Crimson will, as Amaker points out, be playing more basketball.

If there’s any justice, the letters following the “N’’ in their postseason tournament will be “C,’’ “A,’’ and “A,’’ not “I’’ and “T.’’

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of Globe 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.