Harvard point guard Siyani Chambers is best known for his clutch shots. There was the short floater to beat Boston University in just his seventh college game. There was the layup against Dartmouth later that year to cap a 10-point comeback and force overtime, and the last-minute three-point play against Columbia to take the lead for good. And last year, his pull-up jumper was a dagger to Cincinnati in the NCAA tournament.
So after Jeff Coby hit a game-tying three-pointer with 11 seconds left on Friday night — completing a 19-point comeback for Columbia — inbounder Jonah Travis wasted no time getting the ball in Chambers’ hands. Harvard coach Tommy Amaker, per his custom, did not call a timeout, and Chambers trotted into the frontcourt as the clock ticked away.
Two hard steps put Maodo Lo on his heels. A step-back dribble created space just inside the three-point line on the right wing. And a flick of his left wrist gave Harvard a dramatic victory at Lavietes Pavilion.
“We go over those situations all the time in practice. We just try to get the ball out quick and get it up, and try to get a good look,” said Chambers, who finished with 16 points and no turnovers. “Luckily enough, I was able to get down to the wing and make a shot.”
Chambers is a 39% shooter for his career, but few have been better in crunch time. In the final two minutes of one-possession games, Chambers has shot 8-13 (62%) in his three seasons. Friday marked the point guard’s first game-winning shot of 2014-15.
“He’s made plays like that all the time. That’s what he does,” Saunders said. “I trust him with the ball at the end of games, sometimes even more than myself. We know what he’s capable of.”
Through 20 minutes, Harvard and Columbia weren’t on track for a dramatic finish. The hosts broke out of the gate with a blistering start, scoring 1.66 points per possession en route to a 48-31 halftime lead. It came with an uncharacteristic shooting outburst, as Harvard went 7-11 from three-point range in the first period. Columbia lost Corbin Miller for a couple treys, but also saw Wesley Saunders (3-3) and Chambers (2-3) light up from beyond the arc.
Even when not shooting threes, the Crimson’s offense was more effective than usual. Harvard coach Tommy Amaker was much tighter with his rotation than he was last weekend, with just seven players taking all but one minute. That kept Harvard’s weakest offensive players off the court, and allowed its regulars to get in rhythm. The hosts finished the game with 16 assists against a season-low six turnovers.
The Lions’ offense was competent in the first half, dropping six triples of its own to prevent a lopsided game from becoming a rout. And Columbia came out of halftime with a 14-1 run, cutting its deficit to four points in less than five minutes. Lo assisted two baskets in that stretch and scored the final six points, including layups off of a backdoor cut and in transition after Cory Osetkowski blocked a Saunders layup from behind.
Lo finished with a game-high 22 points on 8-16 shooting, along with four assists. Osetkowski played effectively against Harvard’s imposing frontcourt, scoring 11 points on 5-7 shooting with four assists (but four turnovers). “He was out for a couple weeks with the quad and hadn’t practiced, so I think he’s finally getting back to where he is,” Columbia coach Kyle Smith said. “We need him, and we need him to keep getting better.”
Harvard never again found its first-half level, but Jonah Travis-y plays by Jonah Travis helped the hosts’ offense chug along in the middle stages. The Lions kept pace with some clever offensive wrinkles, including a series of guard-on-guard post-ups by Isaac Cohen and Kyle Castlin, targeting the 6’0” Chambers (and occasionally even 6’8” Agunwa Okolie).
“They invert, and that’s part of their philosophy,” Amaker said. “They were posting Siyani the most … and that’s hard for him. Guys were able to help him, but that’s hard to do against this team, because they have the shooting spaced out. So you’re picking your poison a little bit, hoping that you can help enough, but not help too much and give up open shots.”
With 3:30 remaining, Harvard looked in control with a six-point lead and the ball. But the Crimson didn’t score again until their game-winner. The Lions also went quiet for several possessions, until Lo drilled a three-pointer off a baseline out-of-bounds set with 55 seconds remaining. After Chambers missed a trey on the other end, Lo drove along the baseline and kicked to a wide-open Coby, bringing the Lions level for the first time since the fourth minute of play.
After Chambers’ shot, Columbia still had 2.9 seconds to respond. Out of a timeout, Coby caught a halfcourt pass and tried to toss a quick feed to Lo along the left sideline. Lo, guarded closely by Chambers, cut back in the other direction, and the ball sailed out of bounds. Two Saunders free throws — his only points of the second half, after scoring 16 in the first — provided the final 72-68 margin.
Columbia played at its pace (58 possessions), scored enough to win (63% eFG), and defended very well in the second half. But the Lions were undone by Harvard’s hot shooting start and Chambers’ finish, falling to 3-4 in Ivy play. The last-possession defeat extends a painful series for the Lions, who lost in double-overtime at home last season and fell in the final minute the prior year at Harvard.
Meanwhile, the Crimson remained even with Yale (which routed Penn 75-48 at the Palestra) at 6-1. Though Harvard is battling the Bulldogs atop the league for a second straight year, this season feels more like 2013, when it won two overtime games and three others by five points or less and edged Princeton by one game. Four of the Crimson’s six Ivy wins this year have come by fewer than five points, and they may need more late-game magic to navigate a tricky Ancient Eight again.