Avoiding Cinderella

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Tommy Amaker’s Harvard program has wins over a No. 3 seed and a No. 5 seed in the last two NCAA Tournaments. North Carolina will look to avoid becoming the missing No. 4 seed in the Crimson’s checklist of upsets on Thursday.

When asked to describe Harvard’s 68-62 upset over No. 3 seed New Mexico in the 2013 NCAA Tournament, Crimson guard Wesley Saunders, then a sophomore, picked just one adjective: “Jubilation.”

It didn’t matter that the Lobos were the bigger, deeper team, or that Harvard center Kenyatta Smith picked up his fourth foul early in the second half. When the game clock ticked down to triple zeros and the horn sounded, head coach Tommy Amaker rushed onto the floor and hugged Siyani Chambers, his freshman point guard.

A little less than a year later – 363 days, to be exact – Chambers knocked down an 18-footer with 1:57 to play to give Harvard a 56-53 lead over No. 5 Cincinnati in NCAA Tournament second round action. The Crimson point guard made three free throws in the final minute and Saunders, who led Harvard with 12 points, sealed the 61-57 upset with a pair of free throws with 11 seconds to play.

Saunders, Chambers and Smith, along with several other key Crimson players, are back for yet another NCAA Tournament with hopes of yet another opening round upset.

“There's nothing that can replace, in my opinion, a confidence factor of having done it before,” Amaker told reporters at the Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena on Wednesday. “I think that's obvious, and we certainly have that, and we're proud of that.

“That's not going to necessarily help us rebound the ball against Carolina tomorrow, but I do think we have a veteran team and many of our players have had success and experience in the tournament. We're hopeful to draw on that. We're hopeful that that will serve us well in those moments where we're going to be challenged greatly.”

Roy Williams agreed.

“I think there is a value in playing in this tournament and being successful,” the 12th-year UNC head coach said on the same media dais several hours later. “I think you get rid of the jitters quicker, you get more focused quicker and you understand truly what is important.”

Harvard pulled off those upsets with defense and by dictating tempo. The Crimson held New Mexico to 37.5 percent shooting in a 62-possession game in 2013 before limiting Cincinnati to 36.8 percent shooting in a 60-possession contest last March.

Harvard is 14-4 this season in games with fewer than 65 possessions. North Carolina, on the other hand, is just 1-5 in those games.

The Crimson currently rank 46th nationally in field goal percentage defense (39.9).

UNC junior guard Marcus Paige said that fans have approached him and his teammates this week about the matchup with Harvard, specifically bringing up the Crimson’s 76-27 loss to Virginia in December.

Paige’s response to such comments has focused on Harvard’s overall success this season, as well as the fact that the Crimson has just as many NCAA Tournament wins over the past two years as the Tar Heels.

“You’ve got to understand that they won their league,” Paige said. “They were 11-3 in the conference. They’re a veteran group that has won NCAA Tournament games. They’ve gone just as far as we have in the past couple of years, so we’ve just talked about respecting our opponent and understanding that they are a quality and capable opponent. The more you respect a team, the more you’re going to challenge them and come after them and not take them for granted.”

There is one particular record of note that bodes well for UNC: Williams is 24-0 in the NCAA Tournament round of 64.

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