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Harvard’s NCAA Berth is School’s First Since 1946

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Shortly after beating Pennsylvania to destroy its hopes of an Ivy League championship, Princeton forward Patrick Saunders fired off a text message to Keith Wright, a friend and erstwhile rival at Harvard.

“It just said, ‘You’re welcome,’” Wright said Wednesday, a day after the Tigers helped Harvard clinch its first-ever solo Ivy title. “I feel like they owed us one.”

A year after Princeton shared the conference championship with the Crimson and beat them in a one-game tiebreaker to earn the league’s NCAA berth, the Tigers beat Penn to help Harvard reach the tournament for the first time since 1946.

“I knew they weren’t going to go down without a fight,” said Wright, who is friends not only with Saunders but with Doug Davis, the Princeton guard who hit the game-winning shot in last year’s tiebreaker with 2.8 seconds to play. “Two-point-eight seconds. It was something we would say all the time: 2.8 seconds is what kept us from the tournament.”

Said Harvard guard Brandyn Curry: “I instantly forgave them for hitting that shot against us last year.”

Harvard had never won an Ivy League title before last year’s shared championship, and the school raised a banner commemorating that title in the Lavietes Pavilion. Beside it is a long, black banner marking the school’s appearances in the NCAA tournament.

It lists 1946 and then a whole lot of blank space.

The wait is over for the Crimson, who will find out on Sunday who and where they will play in the first round.

“Making the tournament is something that hasn’t happened since … ., ” Wright said, nodding over his shoulder to the banner. “Wherever we go and whoever we play, it’s a good accomplishment. Going to the NCAA tournament, it’s not something a lot of people get to do.”

The Crimson (26-4, 12-2 Ivy League) returned to practice on Wednesday, as the players surfaced from midterm exams and papers to celebrate the continuation of their season. Wright said he spent a half hour on Tuesday night running around the street and yelling; on Wednesday, people were congratulating him in the library and on the street.

“I even had some random lady tell me congratulations,” he said.

Coach Tommy Amaker said he heard from Mike Krzyzewski, his coach when he played at Duke, and from Harvard professors and deans and alumni, including one member of the 1946 team who said he wanted to see Harvard return to the tournament before he died.

“It means a lot to a lot of people,” Amaker said. “To have our basketball program become relevant from a national perspective, to have these students become engaged, that’s worth its weight in gold to me.”

A big part of Harvard’s motivation this year was its near-miss in 2011. Although the school could claim to have won its first Ivy title, the players knew it was considerably diminished by the failure to reach the tournament.

“It became really important to us to win the league and not to share it,” guard Oliver McNally said. “Now it’s over, and our goal is to show we deserve it. It would be a shame if you go there and lay an egg in the first round.”

To prepare, Amaker is pointing to another tournament: the Thanksgiving Battle 4 Atlantis, which Harvard won, with a victory over then-No. 22 Florida State. The players were able to enjoy themselves in the Bahamas, but not so much that they couldn’t concentrate on preparing for and playing the games.

“I think our kids will embrace the opportunity that they have, but they’ll be committed to prepare and do what it takes to be successful,” Amaker said. “I tell them, ‘Embrace the moment. You’re not always guaranteed the next step.’”

“I’m confident they’ll handle it very well.”

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