You could set the world clock to Harvard’s yearly defeat in Storrs. The loss used to inspire hope and belief in moral victories. Then it spawned feelings of disappointment at lost opportunity. Eventually, that disappointment matured into resignation, an emotional hedge against a flicker of optimism. But this year, the fifth defeat in as many seasons, it’s left in its wake a feeling of exasperation.
Part of the reason the annual UConn matchup looms so large in the psyche of Crimson fans is because Harvard’s non-conference slate gives them little else to get excited about. Year after year, the showdown against the Huskies is the only true statement game on the schedule. A Top 25 ranking, a potential at-large bid, national exposure—they all hinge on those 40 minutes in Storrs. Perhaps unfairly, this game, more than the sum total of the pre-Ivy gauntlet, serves as a benchmark for the program’s growth in the college basketball landscape. To beat UConn is to validate the Crimson’s rise not just in the eyes of Ivy hoops junkies, but in the minds of Joe Sports Fan.
For five years running, it’s a nut that the Crimson can’t seem to crack. It came close in 2010, when Jeremy Lin scored 30 points in a 79-73 loss. The next year saw an 81-52 drubbing by the eventual national champions. In 2012 and 2013, Harvard hung tight in the first half before falling behind by double digits in the second period, eventually losing by 14 and 8 points. This year’s game, a 61-56 letdown, was in the same mold.
The exasperating bit is that by many measures this Harvard team is better than UConn. The Huskies were coming off of back-to-back losses, and the Crimson, boasting a top-40 offense and defense, had won its last nine games. In spite of recent history, there was reason for hope. At least until an hour before tip-off. That’s when news trickled out that Wes Saunders would sit with a sore knee. Figures.
Harvard put up a good fight without its best player. The defense was reliable, giving up .97 points per possession to an experienced UConn squad. But without Saunders’ attack off the dribble, the Crimson slogged through its worst offensive performance of the year. Harvard, which shot just 32.4% from inside the arc, missed a number of looks around the basket and had trouble finishing over DeAndre Daniels and Amida Brimah, who combined for 7 blocks. The bad luck inside forced the Crimson to launch from the perimeter, where it chucked 39.2% of its field goal attempts, well over its season average of 26.1%. And the deep shooting meant Harvard could not get to the line for easy points. Its 10 free-throw attempts against 56 shots from the field was 2.5 times below its typical rate.
Some good things happened for the Crimson. Siyani Chambers was characteristically great, rising to the occasion with 21 points. Laurent Rivard had one of his best games of the season with 13 points, three rebounds, and four assists. Brandyn Curry gutted out 38 minutes in just his fourth game back from an Achilles injury. And Harvard put in a late bid to steal a win before bungling the potential game-tying possession in the closing seconds. But, ultimately, the surprise injury to Saunders (not to mention the extended absence of Kenyatta Smith) was too much to overcome.
In the big picture, little has changed for Harvard. The road to the NCAA Tournament still runs through the Ivy League. But it was another lost opportunity. And the more the Crimson fails to make a statement in its marquee non-conference games, the more of a statement it actually makes.