This past weekend, Harvard continued its nerve-wracking habit of playing excellent basketball for only one half of the game, which ultimately led them to two more crucial victories over Columbia and Cornell. Unfortunately, the Crimson played one half on Friday and one half on Saturday that were certainly below the standard of a team that is fighting to be the best team in the Ivy League. So far, Harvard has gotten away with its heart attack-inducing ways, but the question looms: Can they keep this up for six more games?
A sample size of eight Ivy League games is large enough to determine that the Crimson know how to do just enough to win. Indeed, this has been their modus operandi for many years: over the last six seasons (since 2009-10), Harvard is 11-1 in overtime games (its lone OT loss came at Boston College last month). The problematic trend here is that the Crimson allow weaker teams to stay in the game longer than they should, rather than putting them away earlier. This trend continued this past weekend, although when the dust had settled, Harvard had earned two more wins to move to 7-1 in the Ivies, tied for first with Yale.
On Friday, Harvard welcomed a good Columbia team to Cambridge. This may have looked like an easy Crimson win on paper, but Ivy League hoops fans know that Columbia vs. Harvard is usually a tight game. From the opening tip-off, however, this game looked like it would be a blowout. Harvard came out on fire in the first half, scoring 48 points (more than the Crimson have scored in two entire games this season) on 55 percent shooting from the field and an extraordinary 64 percent from beyond the arc. Wesley Saunders scored 16 points in the first half alone, leading the Crimson to a 48-31 lead at the break. “This game is over,” I heard the person sitting behind me say – and that’s what everyone at Lavietes Pavilion was thinking at that point. But as the second half began, the Columbia marching band showed up (stuck in traffic, it missed the first half), and the Lions began to methodically diminish – and eventually eliminate – Harvard’s large lead.
It seemed as though the stars were aligned perfectly for a Columbia comeback – or for someone on the Crimson to be a hero. After a remarkable second half performance by Maodo Lo (or “Chairman,” as the Columbia marching band called him), the Lions clawed to within three points with fewer than 30 seconds to play and possession of the ball. On his team’s most important possession of the game, Lo drove baseline, but when Moundou-Missi rotated to help on Lo, he left Jeff Coby wide open beyond the three-point line. Lo hit him with a pass, and Coby’s shot from downtown hit nothing but net. Somehow, Columbia had overcome a 17-point halftime deficit to tie the game.
With 11 seconds remaining, Crimson floor-general Siyani Chambers calmly carried the ball up the court (deciding not to use one of Harvard’s two remaining time-outs). Just inside the three-point line, he drove right on Maodo Lo (who took the bait), then stepped back Kemba Walker-style and nailed an 18-footer with three seconds left to bury Columbia’s hopes. (Someone should check on Lo because Siyani flat-out broke his ankles – and injured his pride, too, after a post-shot staredown). Columbia couldn’t get a shot off in the last three seconds, and Harvard won another roller-coaster game, 72-68.
On Saturday, Harvard faced a defensively tough Cornell team. The Big Red’s reputation for stout defense was upheld at the start, as Wesley Saunders was held scoreless in the first half and Harvard trailed 24-21 at the break. But the Crimson came out firing in the second half, scoring as many points in the half (40) as Cornell scored in the entire game. When the final buzzer sounded, it wasn’t close: Harvard 61, Cornell 40. Once again, Harvard teased a lesser opponent for a substantial portion of the game, only to break its heart down the stretch – leading to a long bus ride home for the Big Red. (Of course, even if Cornell had won, it still would have been a long bus ride home.)
Doing just enough to win has worked for Harvard for more than half of the Ivy League tournament, so it would be unfair to say the Crimson must change their ways. But in its seven league wins, Harvard has won both halves only twice. If the Crimson don’t become more consistent, their “weaker halves” could come back to haunt them.
With no breathing room atop the Ivy standings, Harvard will defend its league lead next weekend vs. Penn and Princeton in front of two sold-out crowds at Lavietes Pavilion. For the Crimson, the 14-game tournament has become a six-game tournament.