Harvard-Dartmouth will go down in the books as a 16-point Crimson victory, but for the first 30 minutes Saturday’s game did not have the look or feel of a blowout. The Big Green was every bit Harvard’s equal for much of the Ivy-opening contest.
Dartmouth borrowed from Fordham’s playbook on the defensive end by showing the Crimson a 2-3 zone for the majority of the first half. Once again this approach gave Harvard trouble finding its big men, as forwards Keith Wright and Kyle Casey combined to attempt just four shots in the opening frame. The Crimson settled for three-pointers, taking 10 of its first 18 field goal attempts beyond the arc and hitting just three. At the other end of the floor, the Big Green crushed the offensive boards, grabbing eight in the opening period to overcome nine-of-26 shooting from the field.
The best player on the court over this stretch (and arguably in the entire game) was freshman forward Gabas Maldunas, who accounted for five of Dartmouth’s offensive rebounds in the first half. His finishing touch was a little cold early on as he went two for eight to start the game, but he displayed an arsenal of moves reminiscent of those belonging to the man guarding him—Kyle Casey. The long, agile Lithuanian, who showed a willingness to shoot it from mid range and take it to the rim, looked to me like a less athletic, harder-working version of his Harvard counterpart. He finished with 15 points and nine rebounds.
The rest of the Big Green offense looked messy, and it frequently resorted to one-on-one drives (it totaled only five total assists on the afternoon). But the slow pace and Dartmouth’s second opportunities limited the Crimson to just 25 possessions in the first frame, which ended with Harvard up, 23-22.
The Big Green seized the momentum coming out of the break to build a 34-27 lead, but a crucial sequence four minutes into the half shifted the game in Harvard’s favor for good. On one end, Maldunas missed a relatively easy right-handed layup, then Crimson guard Brandyn Curry grabbed the rebound, pushed the ball up court, and found co-captain Oliver McNally for an open three to cut the lead to four. The five-point swing sparked a decisive 36-13 run over the final 16 minutes.
After three poor halves of basketball, Harvard finally turned the switch. The changes were apparent. After allowing eight offensive boards in the first half, the Crimson did not concede any in the second period. On offense, they emphasized finding Wright in the post, and the former Ivy League POY responded by going four-of-five. McNally balanced the inside threat by hitting two threes and driving aggressively into the lane, and he tallied a game-best 17 points, 12 in the second half.
The shift wasn’t all Harvard’s doing. For some reason, Dartmouth backed out of its zone in the second half, playing little, if any, 2-3. The Big Green also showed its youth in some poor basketball IQ plays, highlighted by freshman John Golden barreling into McNally on a closeout to contest a corner three.
The end result, a 63-47 Crimson victory, was one that both teams could be happy with and a little disheartened by. Dartmouth knows that it can hang with the Ivy’s best but probably can’t help but feel that it left some unfinished business on the court. Harvard meanwhile finally found its rhythm after 70 minutes of sloppy play, but a scare from cellar-dwelling Dartmouth on its home court does not exactly bode well for the rest of the Ivy gauntlet.
The real winners, it seems, are the six other schools that didn’t need to sweat out this conference-opening game. Harvard-Dartmouth suggested that the Ivy slate is going to be very competitive, and if I were a Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Penn, Princeton, or Yale fan watching the Crimson and Big Green duke it out, I’d like my chances against either team.