The pundits picked New Mexico.
The No. 3 Lobos were supposed to make a run this March, maybe even as far as the Final Four. Even Nate Silver, the New York Times stats whiz who correctly predicted the outcome in all 50 states during the 2012 presidential election, gave New Mexico an 87.4 percent chance of beating Harvard.
But when the clock hit zeroes Thursday night in Salt Lake City, Crimson coach Tommy Amaker and his gutty, undersized squad from Cambridge looked like the smartest guys in the country.
“This is the type of thing you dream about when you’re in your backyard playing around,” guard Wesley Saunders said after the 68-62 victory. “For it to actually happen now is incredible.”
New Mexico’s size was supposed to cause problems for Harvard. The Lobos’ 7-footer Alex Kirk and Aussie forward Cameron Bairstow towered over a Crimson lineup that featured a center listed at just 6-foot-8.
But an undersized Kenyatta Smith, who played much of the second half with four fouls, caused problems for the Lobos on both ends of the floor, posting up Kirk for easy baskets and blocking shots on defense.
Kirk finished with a game-high 22 points, but needed 18 field-goal attempts to get there. New Mexico guard Kendall Williams hit just one field goal, while point guard Hugh Greenwood was 0 for 3 from the floor.
New Mexico coach Steve Alford said poor shooting performances have been a problem at for the Lobos this season, but they were able to overcome it.
“We weren’t able to dodge that bullet tonight,” he said.
Last March, Harvard forward Laurent Rivard was wide-eyed as he walked onto the court for the school’s first NCAA Tournament game in more than six decades, and saw the blue logo at center court.
A year later, the Crimson looked poised and ready to make history.
Saunders scored 18 points and Rivard sunk five of his nine 3-point attempts — his only field-goal attempts of the night — to lift Harvard to the school’s first-ever win in the tournament.
Amaker called the victory “a sensational, gutsy effort” by his players.
Harvard found itself with multiple players in foul trouble late, but Saunders said the Crimson were ready to rally.
“We just said we had to stick together and believe, and just stick to the things we’d done all year,” he said.
New Mexico only twice took the lead in the second, but each time Harvard had an answer.
Smart guys usually do.