We all know that you don’t get any points from expectations because we’ve heard that from favorites forever, we rarely hear about the flip side of that theorem. You can’t lose any points for your perceived status either.
So while Harvard’s 75-72 win at Jadwin Gym over Princeton Friday night won’t silence many of the detractors who have seen the Crimson appear much more vulnerable than at any point in the last three seasons, and it certainly won’t get them back to a national ranking any time soon, it is indeed a victory and pushes the Crimson to 2-1 in the Ivy League, a game behind Yale with 11 still to go in the 14 game Ivy tournament (and two head-to-head meetings with the Bulldogs still left).
“I think any win gives you confidence and we certainly needed it after a tough loss at home last week (to Dartmouth),” Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said. “We know how our league is. You have to probably do a pretty darn good job at home. And we didn’t do that. We dropped our conference home opener. That’s something that says good things long term for a team that’s going to win the league. But we bounced back, regroup and respond as we tried to say. I thought these kids were terrific tonight, but we have to get beyond this and be ready for Penn tomorrow night.”
The Crimson (12-5 overall) entered Jadwin a woeful 256th nationally in offensive efficiency and you got a pretty good idea why in the opening minutes as Siyani Chambers and Wesley Saunders ran into dead ends and didn’t appear to have much help. But enter Corbin Miller, who scored 17 points and hit five three-pointers (a career high) in the first half to help stake Harvard to a 39-29 lead at the break (Harvard played without Kenyatta Smith, who will miss this weekend with an injury).
“It changes our team (when Miller hits shots),” Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said. “Laurent Rivard was in the stands and he came and hugged everybody and asked us if we had a uniform for him. It makes a big difference, we have some guys that are slashers that we’re looking to see if we can make a play off the dribble. Wesley and Siyani in particular are helped by that.”
Said Princeton coach Mitch Henderson, “Miller really hurt us. He was a big focus of ours throughout the week, so that’s disappointing for our group because we put a lot of time into that.”
Miller, who missed the last two seasons on a Mormon mission in Mexico, scored just seven points (on 2-9 shooting) in the Dartmouth loss, and only scored two points in the second half, but the void left outside by Miller was filled inside senior Jonah Travis, who scored 12 of his 14 after halftime. Together, Miller and Travis came off the bench to shoot 11-16 from the field and take some pressure off the struggling stars on offense.
“Wesley was able to find me a lot,” Travis said. “We’re a whole different team when he’s able to get in the middle and disrupt things, whether that means finishing his own shot or dishing it off to on the block to me or Steve (Moundou-Missi) or Zena (Edosomwan), who are looking for it. He just commands so much attention that a lot of us benefit because of it, and Siyani’s able to do that as well.”
Amaker was very animated by his standards during the game, which didn’t fit the statistical script. Harvard’s woeful offense (even with a slow start) put up 1.14 points per possession, but its defense (which entered seventh nationally in efficiency) conceded 1.09 ppp (and are now 15th), as Steven Cook – who was banged up and only played 13 minutes in Princeton’s Ivy opener against Penn – scored 21 points (on 6-9 shooting) and added four assists and three steals.
But Amaker will have to discern whether those moves (Zena Edosomwan played only five minutes) sacrificed his defense a little bit, and maybe it was worth it anyway as poor as Harvard’s offense has looked for much of the campaign.
Ben Hazel scored 15 more points off the bench for Princeton (8-10, 1-1), but Spencer Weisz was held scoreless, again not as the script would have dictated, at least the script that most on the outside thought might play out.
“I think we can really score,” Henderson said. “I wasn’t as worried about that. In fact, I was more worried about Miller, honestly, and then he ended up really hurting us.”
Saunders finished with 14 points, eight rebounds, and seven assists, but until Travis and Miller entered, Harvard had no other real reliable scorers on the floor. You might have expected Chambers, now a junior veteran, to fill that role, but he has had a dreadful time shooting the ball this season, going 2-8 on Friday and now at just 32% from the field (and only 33% on two-pointers).
But when his team needed it most, it was a vintage Chambers pull-up with 2:30 left that pushed the lead back out to six (Princeton didn’t lead in the final 34 minutes), and it was Chambers grabbing rebounds and making free throws to finish the game off.
And all the questions and concerns about the respective teams only have 24 hours to resolve themselves as Princeton faces a pretty much must-win game against Dartmouth while Harvard taken on Penn.
“There’s not an easy game on the Ivy schedule this year,” Henderson said. “Maybe Harvard with their loss to Dartmouth had an edge and they came in tonight and showed it.”