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The (basketball) Game: Longtime rivals Yale and Harvard meet again for Ivy crown

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CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts — It's time for The (basketball) Game.

The rivalry between Harvard and Yale is moving indoors, where the schools will play Friday night for basketball bragging rights and a chance to all-but clinch an Ivy League championship. Although the roundball version of the century-plus football grudge has never inspired a fight song or a prank from down-river MIT, this year's game has more on the line than any meeting in decades — if not ever.

The winner Friday night at Harvard's sold-out Lavietes Pavillion can do no worse than share the conference title. Harvard (20-6, 10-2) is looking for its fifth straight championship and fourth consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament, while Yale (21-8, 10-2) is hoping for its first title and first NCAA bid since Harvard grad John F. Kennedy was in the White House.

"Every day for the past four years, I've looked up to the banner hanging in the corner of our gym and seen '1962' — the last year Yale made it to the NCAA tournament," forward Matt Townsend said. "Getting '2015' up there would be the best ending I could imagine for my Yale career."

The Harvard and Yale football programs have one of the longest-running and most passionate rivalries in all of sports, meeting on the last weekend of every season for what is annually a make-or-break game, regardless of where the teams are in the standings. Eight times — including this year — the Ivy League championship has also been on the line.

But the competition goes much deeper than that.

The schools are two of the oldest (Harvard is No. 1; Yale is No. 3) in the nation, and two of the most prestigious academically (Harvard was second in the recent U.S. News and World Report rankings, and Yale was third). Five U.S. presidents went to college at Harvard, and three were undergrads at Yale.

"We're always going to have a rivalry with Yale," Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said this week after his team practiced for its final regular-season weekend. "The Harvard-Yale dynamic is always going to be there. It's two of the greatest institutions of higher learning in the country."

Friday's basketball game will be the eighth time in the last two academic years that Harvard and Yale teams have competed for an Ivy League championship, including a volleyball tiebreaker the day before the football teams played for the 131st time.

Last year, Yale was mathematically alive when it opened the final weekend of the basketball season against Harvard; the Bulldogs finished four games back. Last month, Harvard beat Yale in New Haven 52-50 in a game that was 16-11 at halftime.

"Whenever Harvard and Yale have been locking heads, it turns out to be interesting or exciting," Amaker said. "That's to be expected."

The winner of Friday night's rematch will still need another victory to clinch the title: Yale plays sixth-place Dartmouth (12-14, 5-7) on Saturday, and Harvard plays seventh-place Brown (13-16, 4-8). (If the conference standings are tied after the weekend, the schools will be declared co-champions but meet in a tiebreaker the following week for the NCAA berth.)

Unlike their classmates on the football team, though, the Harvard basketball players insist that the game against Yale has no special meaning. The Bulldogs have not been competitive in decades, except for a three-way tie in 2002 with perennial powers Penn and Princeton; Harvard was rarely a threat until winning its first title in 2011.

"We feel every game is a rivalry game," Harvard guard Wesley Saunders said. "Every game in the Ivy League is pretty much a must-win."

And that's the way Amaker wants it.

It's nice that the schools have a rivalry, he said, and that the football teams can look ahead to the matchup every fall. But the basketball coach doesn't feel like he's missing out if he's fighting Princeton for the top spot in the standings one year and Penn then next.

"As long as it's us," Amaker said, "whoever else (is there), I'm OK with it."

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