The Crimson’s season hung in the balance: There were eight seconds left and Harvard trailed by two points. A loss would seriously hurt the Crimson’s chances of even a share of the Ivy title.
This was not the narrative for Harvard’s Saturday night tilt against league-leader Yale, however – this was the storyline of their game against bottom-dweller Brown on Friday.
As the final seconds ticked away, Siyani Chambers dribbled up the court. He handed off to Saunders, who found his way into the paint with a classic Saunders move and shot a five-footer off the glass for the tie – and missed! The Crimson seemed to have blown their Ivy title hopes. But no, wait – Saunders got his own rebound and the put-back for the tie at the buzzer was good! With his 30th and 31st points of the night, Saunders saved the Crimson’s season. In overtime, Harvard hung on to win, 76-74. Wesley Saunders finished with 33 points and 10 rebounds.
The game that many considered to be just a prelude to Saturday night’s contest turned out to be an epic roller coaster ride that epitomizes Ivy League hoops. Here are three of my main thoughts on Harvard’s win at Brown:
Where was Siyani down the stretch?
Siyani Chambers played 10 minutes in the second half, and 29 in regulation, only the second time in his career he has played fewer than 30 minutes in a game decided by less than 25 points. After the game, Tommy Amaker explained that he wanted a taller defender on Brown’s biggest weapon: point guard Tavon Blackmon (who is six feet tall and finished with 25 points and nine assists). But Chambers is an excellent defender and the team’s rhythm flows through him. Siyani needs to be out there as much as possible. Period.
Harvard cannot coast.
The Crimson were flat for much of the game. They played like they knew they could just pull away whenever they wanted to. As a result, they let the raucous Brown crowd get into the game, Tavon Blackmon became the best player on the floor, and Wesley Saunders had to be a hero at the end. In three games against the Ivy League’s three worst teams, Harvard has one loss, one 25-point win, and one overtime win. Baffling. Harvard has to realize that any game could doom their season, and every Friday and Saturday night, they must come to the gym ready to play their hardest and their best.
Jonah Travis is Harvard’s MVP through Ivy play.
Okay, so the MVP has actually been Wesley Saunders, but among the rest of the squad, Travis has been the spark plug for the Crimson. Off the bench, he has scored big points, grabbed a ton of rebounds, hit his free throws and played ferocious defense. He made a few key plays in the waning moments of the Brown game that were critical to Harvard’s win. Travis’ grit and hustle are unmatched in the Ivy League, and I am surprised that Amaker doesn’t give him all the minutes he deserves.
Twenty-four hours after Harvard’s narrow victory at Brown, we had a heavyweight bout between the undefeated challenger, Yale, and the reigning champ, Harvard. A win would tie the Crimson for the Ivy League lead and put their destiny in their own hands, giving them a fast track to the Ivy title; a loss would mean a two-game deficit (behind Yale) in the Ivy League standings, a steep uphill battle the rest of the season, and little chance of winning the title outright. Yes, this game had become the most consequential contest of the first half of this year’s Ivy “tournament.”
The huge crowd at John J. Lee Amphitheater was on its feet and deafeningly loud for the opening tip-off, and players on both teams showed their butterflies by missing most of their shots during the first 20 minutes. At the end of the first half, Harvard led 16-11. Harvard was flat offensively (shooting 30 percent from the floor), while Yale was even flatter (14 percent from the floor).
But this turned out to be a tale of two halves, as both Harvard and Yale found their strokes as soon as the second half began. Yale went 8-for-16 from behind the arc in the second half to keep the Crimson on their toes, but the Bulldogs could not pull in front. Yale never went away, and the game turned out to be a nail-biter, but the Crimson eventually silenced 2,000 Yale fans to come away with the win, 52-50.
Unlike the Brown game, where one player’s prolific scoring (Saunders) had the greatest impact on the game’s outcome, it was the less flashy things (such as free-throw shooting and rebounding) that led to a win for Harvard in this one. Yale missed 19 shots in the first half and only recovered three offensive boards, and Harvard finished the game with a +10 rebounding edge. It wasn’t pretty, but the Crimson’s calling card (defense) once again assured them a victory in New Haven. So, what does this gigantic win mean going forward?
As Yale’s Javier Duren noted after the game, Harvard and Yale are still tied.
This was a huge win for Harvard, but it simply pulled the Crimson even with Yale. A lot of basketball remains to be played.
Harvard is in control of its own destiny.
With six of their final eight games at Lavietes Pavilion (though John J. Lee has seemed like home for the last four years), the Crimson must win the games that they should win. If they do this, the Ivy crown will be theirs once again.
Jonah Travis is clearly a starter.
While Travis plays the fifth-most minutes of all Crimson players in Ivy play (17.7 minutes per game) and makes an oversized impact when he’s on the floor, he does not start. I would love to ask coach Amaker why he plays Zena Edosomwan far fewer minutes (14.2 mpg in Ivy play) than both Corbin Miller (27.0 mpg in Ivy play) and Jonah Travis, yet consistently starts Z at the beginning of each half. Weird, yes – but all of this could change when Kenyatta Smith (returns (he was in uniform but did not play this past weekend).
Wesley Saunders is the Ivy Player of the Year.
He had 33 points versus Brown and made clutch shots down the stretch against Yale and Brown. What about Yale’s Justin Sears? Saunders has unmatched versatility, and his experience has been evident so far in all six Ivy games. Sears has been awesome so far in Ivy play, but history says Saunders is more likely to sustain his top-notch performances. If Sears still has your vote, note that he disappeared in the second half of one of the biggest games of his career on Saturday.
The Crimson need to capitalize.
They blew the Dartmouth game. They were seconds away from blowing the Brown game. Then they beat Yale on the road. If the Crimson really want another Ivy title, they have to step up right now and leave the rest of the league in the dust. If the Crimson play to their full potential, this shouldn’t come down to the final weekend. This team is very good, but they need to play up to their potential in every game the rest of the way.
See you in a week at Lavietes Pavilion in Cambridge when the Crimson take on Columbia and Cornell for two of their eight remaining must-win games!