ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — It didn’t take any deep thinking to guess how this one might go.
Except for a late, desperate rally, the Ivy League’s best had trouble hanging with the only private school in the Southeastern Conference.
John Jenkins made all six of his late free throws and scored 27 points Thursday to help Vanderbilt hold off Harvard 79-70 in an East Regional game, otherwise known as “The Brain Bowl.”
Vanderbilt’s senior-heavy group won its NCAA opener after the Commodores went winless in the tournament in 2008, ‘10 and ‘11 despite being seeded 4th, 4th and 5th. The Commodores (25-10) were a ‘5’ for this one, as well, but came in with a victory over top-ranked Kentucky last weekend and armed with plenty of lessons from past failures.
“We probably didn’t feel pressure, but we understand that people were looking at us as an upset trend in recent years,” senior Lance Goulbourne said. “But we play the game looking forward, not looking backward. So this is a different year.”
They built an 18-point lead early in the second half and saw No. 12 Harvard (26-5) trim it to five with 1:51 to go. But the Commodores went 8 for 9 from the line from there and won despite not making a field goal over the final 5:22.
On Saturday, Vanderbilt faces Wisconsin, a 73-49 winner over Montana, earlier at The Pit. The Commodores have made it out of the first weekend only twice in their history.
“I’m really proud of them for not only what they did last weekend, which was quite an accomplishment, but also what they were able to do today,” Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. “I’m glad they got to experience this, because this was the only success that they had not experienced since being in our program.”
Harvard also knows a little something about postseason droughts.
The Crimson made the tournament for the first time since 1946, though this is clearly not your father’s Harvard — or even your grandfather’s. This is, after all, the school that gave us Jeremy Lin.
Crimsonsanity? Well, if it’s not kicking in now, you can feel it building.
Coached by Tommy Amaker, a Duke grad, the Crimson notched an impressive win over Florida State early in the season, then held off the Ivy League’s more traditional powers, Penn and Princeton, to make the Big Show.
Laurent Rivard treated The Pit like his own backyard, finishing with 20 points on 6-for-7 shooting from 3-point range — many jacked up from well behind the line. But nobody else on Harvard shot well, and the Commodores built a lead that was too big to overcome. Kyle Casey scored 13 and Brandyn Curry had 12 for Harvard, which went 20 for 49 from the floor if you take out Rivard’s shots.
“I can’t say enough about the fight that we had and the effort that we put forth to stay relevant in this particular basketball game,” Amaker said.
Harvard led 17-16 early, and the one member of the Crimson band shouted out to the Vanderbilt players: “You beat Kentucky, and now you’re losing to an Ivy League School.”
Funny stuff, even if it lasted only a few seconds. Vanderbilt closed the first half on a 17-6 run and kept the lead at 10 or more for most of the second half.
The most telling sequence came with just under 11 minutes left, when Vanderbilt missed four shots and got offensive rebounds on all of them. The possession ended when Jenkins hit a 17-footer and got fouled to set up a three-point play for a 56-42 lead.
Jenkins had a three-point play, a four-point play and a traditional 3-pointer in the second half.
Jeffery Taylor, who won a state title with Hobbs High School here at The Pit, finished with 15 points for Vandy while another senior, Festus Ezeli, grabbed 11 rebounds, blocked four shots and altered many more.
This was a sweet win for Vanderbilt, considering its tournament history. The Commodores had lost to Richmond, Murray State and Siena over the last four years — becoming the punch line for a veritable who’s who of first-round bracket busters.
Jenkins, a junior, could have gone to the NBA last year but decided to stick it out, along with four seniors in the starting lineup.
They are, to put it one way, the anti-Kentucky. Stallings takes as much pride in the number of degrees he manufactures as the number of wins. This year at Vanderbilt, he’s proving you can produce both.
“In our particular case, we’ve got some young, talented guys, but our older guys are better,” Stallings said. “So they’ve grown up in our program. They have built our program to a level that Vanderbilt’s not accustomed to.”
Same could be said at Harvard, where success in the classroom is much more common than on the basketball court.
“One thing that sticks with me is a kid who played high school basketball with me and said, ‘You’re living out a lot of people’s dreams right now,’” senior guard Oliver McNally said. “That’s probably the one that stuck with me the most. That’s totally true, but right now it’s a lot of disappointment.”