Harvard men’s basketball escapes Columbia, 80-75, to sweep season series

Following a Friday night loss to Cornell, the dreaded bus trip from Ithaca to Morningside Heights and a nine-point deficit midway through the second half of Saturday night’s contest, Harvard men’s basketball stormed back to defeat Columbia by five, 80-75, and left Levien Gymnasium tied with the Lions in league play.

Both teams are in fourth place in the Ivy League, but the Crimson (13-9, 4-5 Ivy) swept the season series and presently hold the fourth seed for the Ivy League Tournament with only five games to go.

After a tight opening 20 minutes that featured 13 lead changes and seven ties, Columbia (13-9, 4-5) finished the half up 38-37.

With a Malik Mack three-pointer giving Harvard its first lead of the second half, 40-38, the Lions scored 15 of the next 19 points, including a 10-0 run, to open up a 53-44 lead with 12 minutes left on the clock.

The Crimson responded with a quick 7-0 run, but Columbia matched the visitors and found itself still up nine, 60-51, with only nine and a half minutes remaining in regulation.

Momentum and the boisterous crowd were in the Lions’ favor. But Harvard wouldn’t go down without a fight.

A triple by junior guard Louis Lesmond from the right corner and a 3-for-3 effort from the free throw line from sophomore forward Chisom Okpara bookended a Harvard 23-6 run over the next seven minutes to take a 73-66 lead.

The visitors went 5-for-6 from inside and 6-for-8 from the charity stripe during that stretch, while its defense held the hosts to 1-for-6 two-point and 1-for-4 three-point shooting.

Sophomore guard Avery Brown tried to get things going for Columbia, hitting a layup and two free throws to cut the deficit to three with a minute and a half to go.

On the next possession, Mack beat Brown and was heading to the hoop for a layup, but Brown quickly turned and slapped the ball away. Mack came down with the loose ball, but junior guard Jaden Cooper was called for a questionable foul that sent Mack to the line.

The Harvard freshman phenom sank both shots to put the Harvard lead back up to five with just over a minute to go.

Brown grabbed the inbounds pass and sped to the hole to make it a one-possession game, but senior forward Justice Ajogbor was there for the back-breaking block.

The Crimson went 5-for-6 from the charity stripe in the final minute, shutting the door on the Lions.

As usual, Mack led the way for Harvard with 21 points, seven assists and four rebounds. Ajogbor posted a double-double of 13 points and 11 rebounds, as well as a career-high six blocks. Okpara added 19 points and Lesmond finished with 11 on the night.

Copper came off the bench to put up a career-high 26 points in 27 minutes for the Lions and was named the game’s KenPom MVP.

Similar to Crimson’s 62-59 victory over Columbia two weeks ago at Lavietes Pavilion, two big keys were the defensive effort on junior guard Geronimo Rubio De La Rosa and at the three-point line as the game progressed.

Back on Feb. 3, the Lions’ leading scorer was held to only three points. On Saturday night, he was held scoreless in the first half and finished with 10 points, more than six points below his conference average.

In the first game of the season series, the Lioas started out 6-for-12 (50%) from downtown, but Harvard held them to a 2-for-14 (14%) effort the rest of the way.  For game number two, the Lions, who entered the contest 10th in the nation in three-point accuracy (38.9%), made seven of their first 12 (58%), but were limited to 2-for-15 (13%) over the last 20-plus minutes.

For next weekend’s back-to-backs, Harvard will finish its home schedule with games against third-place Princeton (19-3, 7-2) on Friday and last-place Penn (9-15, 1-8) on Saturday. Meanwhile, the Lions, who have three games left at Levien, will look for the season sweep of sixth-place Brown (7-17, 3-6) and then welcome league-leading Yale (17-7, 8-1).