CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- Two games, one goal: win out for at least a chance to play for the Ivy League title.
That’s always been the idea. But when the Crimson lost to visiting Penn on Saturday night, it changed a little.
Before, Harvard had hoped it would be playing its final regular-season games at Columbia on Friday night and at Cornell on Saturday night (ESPN3) for a chance to clinch the Ivy League title outright. Tommy Amaker & Co. wanted to avoid the fate that befell them in 2010-11, when they finished tied with Princeton in the Ancient Eight standings and it came down to a playoff game for the right to represent the league in the NCAA tourney.
They lost that playoff game on a Douglas Davis buzzer-beater.
The loss to the Quakers ended the Crimson’s chance to win the title outright with a single win this weekend, but they’re far from eliminated. If they win both games, and Penn loses one of its last three against either Brown, Yale or Princeton, the Crimson win the title. If both teams win out, it's on to a another one-game playoff.
“We just need to focus on the two games we have at hand,” point guard Brandyn Curry said before practice on Monday. “The situation we’re in is not that bad. We still control our own destiny, so we’ve just got to take care of business. These next two games we’ve just gotta play ‘em like we won last weekend, like we’re playing for a championship.
“That’s basically still what we’re doing. If we win out, no matter what happens we still own at least a share of the Ivy League.”
Amaker said Monday that his job now is to keep his team focused on the task at hand. That means defending Columbia’s dribble drive offense. That means defending the 3-point line against Cornell.
That means being more efficient on the offensive end and making open shots they missed Saturday night.
Senior co-captain Oliver McNally had two open looks from 3 late against the Quakers. After the second shot kicked off the rim and out, McNally put both hands on his head in seeming disbelief as he ran back on defense.
The second shot came with less than a minute to go, and would’ve given Harvard a 57-53 lead.
“It’s really frustrating,” McNally said of the missed shots. “It’s tough to look back at it, but you’ve gotta try to forget about it and move on.”
McNally said he’s not concerned about the Crimson’s 3-point shooting (2-for-11 on Saturday and 4-for-16 on Friday against Princeton).
“No one’s taking shots they shouldn’t be taking, so they’ll fall,” he said. “It’s one thing when you get out of character and take shots you shouldn’t take -- that’s an issue. The issue is just stepping up and making shots, which we will.”
The man responsible for finding the shooters open looks is confident that the poor performance over the weekend won’t have a carryover effect.
“Nah, I don’t think it’s lingering in their mind at all,” Curry said. “They’re great shooters, they know they are. Coach [Amaker] is really great with encouraging us to always take our shots no matter what. I mean, he has tremendous confidence in us and so you can’t help but have confidence in your shot.
“I’m confident that next time I find them that they’ll bury the shot.”
They’ll need to bury them this weekend, because while Columbia (14-14, 3-9) and Cornell (11-15, 6-6) are in sixth and fifth place, respectively, in the Ivy League, both teams are capable of pulling off an upset.
“Two very good teams,” Kyle Casey said. “I think Columbia is a very dangerous team, personally. They’ve had a chance to close out a lot of games that they haven’t closed out. But they’ve been playing well together and with the atmosphere and the hype surrounding us coming in there and things like that, we’ll definitely have to be on our A-game.”
“I’m concerned because they’re similar in ways to what Penn can do, which is spread you out and dribble drive,” Amaker said of Columbia. “The kid [Brian] Barbour is very, very good off the bounce. We’re gonna have our hands full playing our defense without fouling.”
Barbour is leading Columbia with 15.5 points per game, and is averaging 17.0 points in conference play.
Cornell is averaging 7.7 made 3s a game this season (tied with Brown for most in the Ivy), including 3.0 per game by Drew Ferry (most in the Ivy), the Big Red’s leading scorer at 11.3 points per game.
One thing is crystal clear: Harvard can’t afford to have a Penn hangover.
The Crimson can’t be looking ahead to a potential playoff with any one of the three teams within two games of first place -- or back to Saturday night, when Casey seemed to have put them in front with 3.3 seconds left only to be called for a charge.
“We have absolutely no choice,” Casey said. “What’s happened and what’s done is done, and if we don’t take care of business this weekend, in the grand scheme of things that play’s not really gonna mean too much.
“If we don’t go into this weekend with a mindset and a determination to finish the season out on the right page, I think we’ll definitely regret that.”
Jack McCluskey is an editor for ESPN.com and a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter @jack_mccluskey.