All the signs pointed to this being the time for a changing of the guard in the Ivy League. Harvard’s 27-point output at Virginia in December coupled with a season-opening loss to Holy Cross made the three-time defending champ (plus a share of a fourth) Crimson look vulnerable and when they collapsed at home to Dartmouth two weeks ago, well the door swung wide open for Yale.
Meanwhile, the Bulldogs were a veteran team who had their time the last couple of seasons, getting ever closer and taking advantage of that Dartmouth slip up to grab the lead. Saturday, they had a chance to take command of the Ivy race, putting two games between themselves and the rival Crimson as they chased their first NCAA Tournament berth in more than a half-century.
Harvard’s defense wouldn’t let them.
A night after Yale had a plethora of what James Jones called “practice shots”, Harvard made nothing easy, holding the Bulldogs (16-7. 5-1) to just three first-half field goals and virtually leading start to finish in a 52-50 win, leaving Yale and Harvard tied with the 14-Game Tournament now down to eight.
“In all honesty, our defense has been our calling card for a number of years,” Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said. “That doesn’t mean we’re going to win every game or play perfectly. You can get kind of sidetracked watching us the last couple years because we have been so good offensively. But we generate offense from our defense. We’ve tried to build our program around our defense. That was the plan coming into Harvard, we were going to build around our name and the brand of Harvard and our defense on the court.”
The numbers mostly back Amaker up, Harvard was 35th, 145th, and 34th in defensive efficiency the last three seasons, all outright Ivy titles. But this year’s team seem to have taken it to a new level, mostly out of necessity as Amaker alluded to. The Crimson (15-5, 5-1) are still just 218th in offensive efficiency, but are 12th at the other end.
Amaker’s starting lineup features just one true guard in Siyani Chambers, paired with Zena Edosomwan, Steve Moundou-Missi, Wesley Saunders, and Agunwa Okolie, and all four are athletic enough to stay with many guards or small forwards. So with Chambers chasing Yale sharpshooter Jack Montague all over the floor, the other four worked on keeping Justin Sears and friends away from the basket. That combination of size and athleticism just doesn’t exist anywhere else in the Ivy League and in few other places in the country, even if it does limit them a bit at the other end (none of the other four, even Saunders, is a true shooter).
Still, even Amaker could not have imagined the first half, where Yale scored an outrageous 0.41 points per possession and shot 3-22 from the field (a cool 13.6 eFG%). Alas, Harvard wasn’t much better at the other end (0.57 ppp) and we had a comical 16-11 halftime edge for the Crimson.
“Sometimes you play so hard that you can’t shoot straight or even think straight, and I think that’s what happened to both teams in the first half,” Amaker said.
Yale made five of its first six shots to open the second half, but every time Yale hit a shot (and they were 8-16 from beyond the arc after halftime), Harvard seemed to have an answer. The Crimson allowed Yale only 20% of their offensive rebounds and had some timely offensive boards of their own, including one from Jonah Travis with the Crimson up three and four minutes left, which eventually resulted in a huge Siyani Chambers three-pointer.
“Rebounding statistics can be a little misleading,” Yale coach James Jones said. “We didn’t do a good job offensive rebounding. We did a pretty good job defensive rebounding. We missed a lot of shots and we didn’t get many of them back. I thought they did a really good job controlling the paint, and we didn’t have enough guys going after offensive rebounds.”
Yale kept pushing late, Duren hit a three to bring him to 1,000 points for his career and Montague’s three with seven seconds left made it 50-48. But Saunders calmly hit two free throws at the other end to seal the game.
“We approached it as if were just another game,” Saunders said. “We just stuck to the things we’ve been doing all season. We knew we were going to have to come out and battle. Obviously, given the build-up for this game, we knew that we were going to come into a hostile environment and we knew we were going to have to battle, and I think that everyone showed that we were willing to fight.”
Added Amaker: “I’m proud our kids coming into this kind of environment and playing a team honestly that’s been playing the best in our conference,” Amaker said. “With Sears and Cotton and Duren, they’re really good, and Montague’s a terrific shooter. So we knew coming off of last night how difficult this was going to be and it certainly proved to be exactly that.”
Justin Sears came in averaging 21 points per game in Ivy play, but was held to just nine on 2-7 shooting and a 19% usage rate forcing Yale to go almost exclusively from the outside. Again, other Ivy teams just don’t have the size and athleticism that Harvard does down there.”
“He had some opportunities. He settled for some jump shots,” Yale coach James Jones said. “They did do a good job of getting him out of the box and limiting his opportunities, but we were doing the same thing to their guys at the other end.”
This was Harvard’s 12th straight Ivy League road victory over the last three seasons and for all the praise that has been heaped upon them there were a couple close calls in that stretch, including Saunders needing a buzzer beater to force overtime Friday night at Brown, another OT game at Brown last season, and a double-overtime win at Columbia a year ago. Luck? Veteran grit? Karma? A combination of the preceding?
“We have a veteran group, and they should feel confident based on what they’ve achieved and accomplished,” Amaker said. “Does that always get you a victory? No. But that counts for something.”
This was also Harvard’s fourth straight win against Yale at Lee Amphitheater, the first class in Harvard history that can say that. There also may be some karma involved there, you may remember that Harvard lost the 2011 Ivy League playoff in New Haven at the buzzer to Princeton, but since then, the Ivy has belonged exclusively to the Crimson.
Although they clearly have the momentum, it is now an eight-game race. Yale can regain its footing if it can win at Princeton and Penn next week, while Harvard seems like it should be OK hosting Columbia and Cornell, but Lavietes Pavilion has not been the fortress it seems of late.
And if you’re scoring at home, Yale and Harvard will meet again in the last weekend of the Ivy season on March 6 in Cambridge. That might be a tough ticket.