If you count college basketball among your passions, as I do, and you weren’t among the 2,000 folks at the John J. Lee Amphitheater on the Yale campus Friday night for the Harvard-Yale game, you missed a true classic — a game for the ages. I know, it’s only Ivy League basketball, not the real deal Big East UConn-type game played 70 miles from here, but it had all of the excitement and pathos of any big-time game you’ll ever see. And, having gone to the ACC Tournament for more than 35 years and having spent lots of evenings at Pauley Pavilion, I’ve seen many. No, it won’t replace the 103–100 overtime victory in Greensboro Coliseum by North Carolina State’s 1974 national championship team (over a Maryland team that sent six players to the NBA), but I will remember it for a very long time.
The game didn’t begin well for the Bulldogs. Harvard scored a couple of easy early baskets on simple pick and rolls and Yale looked confused, but they soon settled down and defended well throughout the first half. Yale dominated the boards, and, led by Alex Zampier ’10, out shot the Crimson, ending the half with a comfortable nine-point lead.
But when the second period began, Harvard once again demonstrated the wisdom of the old cliché about the decisive first minutes after halftime by going on a 15–2 run. Tommy Amaker’s Harvard was living up to their hype, running as pretty a motion offense as you could hope to see, led by their senior Ivy League Player of the Year candidate Jeremy Lin and freshman Kyle Casey, who is one of the best NBA prospects I’ve seen in the league. If Harvard had been wearing blue and white and been a half-foot bigger, you might have thought you were watching one of Amaker’s Blue Devils teams.
The last 13 minutes of the second half were war: Zampier, who had started the half in a brief out-of control frenzy, settled down, Yale’s Greg Mangano ‘12 was having the game of his career — rebounding, blocking shots and swishing three-pointers at crucial moments. James Jones coached like a chess grandmaster, moving his players in and out in a manner not even his critics could second-guess. It was clear this one was going down to the wire.
With a minute left, Lin fouled out, and the Yale fans (prematurely) exhaled with relief. With 27 seconds to play, Harvard rookie Dee Giger sank a three-ball to tie the score. Yale then had the ball. For 20 seconds, all went well. But with 6.7 seconds left — way too soon — Michael Sands ’11 backed in close to the basket and turned to shoot. He was fouled, sank one of two and the ball went to Harvard. Oliver McNally took the ball the length of the court and, with two seconds left, was barely brushed by Porter Braswell ’11 and awarded two shots. The crowd did its part, standing and screaming as McNally took his first shot, which clanged around the rim and then out onto the floor. But he sank the second; all Zampier could do was to heave the ball toward the Yale basket from the backcourt as the buzzer sounded: 66–66.
Harvard pulled ahead about halfway through overtime, and Yale’s fortunes soured when Jordan Gibson ’10, who had played a tenacious defensive game, tripped, smacking his head on the hardwood so hard that he was too dazed to continue. Still, in the final seconds, with Harvard up 82–79, Zampier, who had scored 32 points, worked his way open for a three-point shot to tie the game.
But lady luck had left. The ball bounced off the rim; Mangano rebounded and got the ball back to Zampier for a second chance. No good. Buzzer sounds.
One of my daughters, who in Zampier’s four years here has never been taken with what she views as his braggadocio style, shed tears for him. “Every basketball player,” she said, “dreams of hitting a shot at the buzzer to win a crucial game over their archrival. I hope those don’t turn into nightmares for him.”
It was a heart-wrenching loss. The crowd stood and cheered. A valiant effort. A great game. Sorry if you missed it.
Michael Graetz is the Justus S. Hotchkiss Professor Emeritus of Law at Yale Law School.