The Crimson entered the Ivy League Tournament semifinals as favorites over the fourth-seeded Big Red. This made sense. While Harvard arrived on a roll, Cornell needed a Yale overtime win against Princeton to even earn a trip to the Palestra. But after two hard-fought games in the regular season between these two teams and memories from last year’s tough Ivy Tournament semifinal lingering in Harvard’s mind, the game was far from a sure thing for either side.
Early on, both sides were jumpy and cold from the floor, especially Harvard. After the game, Tommy Amaker attributed this to nerves, but added that after a few shots went in, all that nervousness went away. He also noted the importance of Rio Haskett’s three-pointer late in the first half. In many ways, this shot, a Haskett wing three with 2:45 to play in the first half as the Crimson trailed by seven, was the turning point in the game.
Up to that point, Seth Towns had been doing it all for the Crimson without much help (very similar to what Bryce Aiken did last year in the Crimson’s loss to Yale under the very same circumstances). Soon after the Haskett three, Juzang nailed two more shots from downtown, the second of which put Harvard up by four. The final dagger in Harvard’s 16-3 run came from Juzang again. This time, he stepped into a half-court bomb as time expired in the first half. The ball swished through the net, and a demoralized Cornell team never recovered.
On the play, Robert Baker threw a full-court pass to Chris Lewis, who after catching the ball over the Cornell defender at the top of the key threw it back to Juzang at the logo for the shot. Cornell head coach Brian Earl and Stone Gettings both expressed discontent after the game about the lack of a foul call on the play. Lewis, in Gettings’s words, “trampled” the defender to receive the pass. However, Gettings quickly acknowledged that one call was not the difference in the game and that the Big Red have overcome five-point halftime deficits in the past.
In the second half, Harvard shot 5-for-10 from three-point land, and Seth Towns scored 12 of his 24 points. Brian Earl acknowledged Towns’ patience on offense, while Amaker called him Harvard’s most important player. Earl added that Harvard is simply a very tough team to make a comeback against. While Towns filled up the stat sheet, posting 24 points and 12 rebounds, Amaker stressed the importance of “bench and balance” above all.
Chris Lewis also recorded a double-double, as he went for 16 points and 10 rebounds. After going down with a what looked like a bruised knee in the first half and then looking hobbled for a few possessions, it was a relief to see Lewis, whom Amaker called “the key to our team and the key to our program,” not only finish the game but do it quite impressively. He scored 12 of his 16 points in the second half.
Matt Morgan paced Cornell with 19 points on 9-for-16 shooting in 28 minutes.
With the win, Harvard moves into the Ivy League title game on Sunday versus Penn at the Palestra. When Amaker was asked if playing on the road in the championship makes a difference, he replied, “Yes.” He hesitated and laughed, “Yes.”
So what can Harvard improve upon after its 19-point win over Cornell? Amaker said he called out Towns, the Ivy Player of the Year who scored 24 points in this one, as the one player he thought could play better. “I feel guilty. Now I see the stat-sheet.” He later added, “But we need him to play better.”
The Crimson may have eliminated whatever semifinal ghosts had stuck with them from last year. But winning the rubber match of the season series with Penn to advance to the dance is the real goal. Tomorrow at noon at the Palestra we’ll get to see the two best teams in the Ivy League compete for a trip to March Madness. Just the way it’s supposed to be.