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NCAA Tournament: Harvard stuns No. 3-seeded New Mexico, 68-62

Harvard guard Siyani Chambers (1) and forward Laurent Rivard begin to celebrate after defeating New Mexico, 68-62, on Thursday.
(Harry How / Getty Images)

SALT LAKE CITY -- Harvard didn’t stand a clam chowder chance. New Mexico was too tall and too strong.

The outcome seemed decided in a routine eyeball test during pregame layup drills.

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But bigger isn’t always better, right?

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No. 14-seeded Harvard, shooting a remarkable 52.4% from the field while making eight of 18 three-point attempts, pulled off a late-night West Regional shocker with a 68-62 victory over third-seeded New Mexico at EnergySolutions Arena.

“What a sensational, gutsy effort by our team,” Harvard Coach Tommy Amaker said. “Our toughness and courage carried us through.”

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New Mexico, a popular pick to make a deep tournament run, shot only 37.5% from the field, including three of 14 on three-point tries.

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“You can’t shoot for them,” said New Mexico Coach Steve Alford, a great shooting guard when he played for Bob Knight at Indiana. “That’s obviously a glaring weakness on our basketball team.”

It was Harvard’s first win in the NCAA tournament. Last year, the Crimson made the tournament for the first time since 1946, losing to Vanderbilt.

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“We’re still in disbelief,” senior guard Christian Webster said. “This is as good as it gets right now.”

Laurent Rivard, a junior guard from Quebec, said it was something he dreamed about as a little kid.

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“To do it with Harvard on our chest, it can’t get better than this,” Rivard said.

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Rivard made five of nine three-point attempts and finished with 17 points. He didn’t attempt a shot inside the arc.

Harvard (20-9) now faces Arizona on Saturday, with the winner advancing to next weekend’s West Regional semifinals at Staples Center.

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Two Southern California kids, in fact, helped Harvard to Thursday’s win.

Wesley Saunders, a sophomore guard from Los Angeles Windward High led Harvard with a game-high 18 points, and 6-8 sophomore center Kenyatta Smith from Flintridge Prep had 10 points and seven rebounds.

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Smith never let up inside while challenging New Mexico’s taller front line that included 7-footer Alex Kirk. Smith was in foul trouble all night and eventually fouled out.

“Nobody expected us to win this game,” Smith said. “It feels amazing. It feels absolutely amazing, in a season when we were expected to do nothing.”

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The game could have turned against Harvard with eight minutes left. The Crimson had three players with four fouls and New Mexico had just taken a 49-47 lead on a three-pointer by Jamal Fenton.

Harvard, though, didn’t fold.

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“We knew we couldn’t let down for a second or they would pull out the victory,” Saunders said.

Kirk led New Mexico (29-6) with 22 points and 12 rebounds.

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“They punched first,” Kirk said of Harvard. “They played harder than us, they obviously wanted it more.”

You can call it sweet revenge for Amaker against Alford. It was 26 years ago this week when Alford’s Indiana Hoosiers defeated Amaker’s Duke Blue Devils in the Midwest Regional semifinals.

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They were players then, star guards leading two of the most decorated teams in college basketball.

Indiana went on to win the 1987 NCAA championship with a victory over Syracuse.

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“I just hope I can pay him back,” Amaker told the Boston Globe this week.

Truth be told, Amaker had a good game in 1987 too, outscoring Alford, 23-18.

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Amaker said it would take some time for it all to sink it.

He has two days before Saturday’s next challenge against Arizona.

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“It means the world to us,” Amaker said of what Thursday’s win meant for the program. “It’s significant for us to be in this position.”.

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