When you’re on a five-game losing streak, style points mean nothing. Harvard’s 79-73 win over Brown wasn’t pretty, featuring ubiquitous foul trouble, weird lineups, long stoppages, and did I mention fouls? But it was a win nonetheless — the first in four weeks for the Crimson, pulling them out of the Ivy League cellar.
Harvard (2-5 Ivy) and Brown (2-5) each finished the game with more fouls than field goals, and every starter was in foul trouble at least once. As a result, neither squad ran its usual rotation; only one player apiece topped 30 minutes. Both teams scored well over a point per possession, but only due to a combined 66 free-throw attempts (many in a final minute that lasted 13 minutes of real time).
The premier matchup pitted Zena Edosomwan against Cedric Kuakumensah, two centers who top the Ivy League in rebounding and are their teams’ leading scorers. But Kuakumensah picked up two fouls in the first two minutes — the latter a charge drawn by Edosomwan — and sat for the remainder of the half. The senior avoided foul trouble afterward, but he scored just six points on a season-low three shots.
Harvard’s star also played less than half the game; coach Tommy Amaker said he limited Edosomwan’s minutes in his first game back from injury, and that Amaker wanted quicker defenders when Brown went small without Kuakumensah. But the junior was effective in his limited time, scoring 13 points in 18 minutes. He also shored up Harvard’s defense, especially in a two-minute stretch in the second half when he dove for a loose ball, ripped down a contested rebound, and swatted Jason Massey’s layup. Those plays sparked a 16-5 run that put the hosts ahead for good.
With the big men out of the spotlight, other players stepped up. Brown weathered Kuakumensah’s absence to take a five-point lead at halftime, thanks to one of its strongest defensive efforts of the season. On offense, Tavon Blackmon ran the show, penetrating at will and kicking to open shooters. Blackmon finished with a game-high 19 points and six assists — but also nine turnovers, as Harvard stayed in passing lanes in the second half.
Harvard shared its scoring load between five players in double figures. Corbin Miller shook off a shooting slump to score 15 points, while Corey Johnson and Patrick Steeves added 14 apiece. The Crimson’s leader was Agunwa Okolie, who had 15 points and 12 rebounds — a performance especially sweet because he was often guarded by his younger brother Obi, a Brown freshman. (Obi finished with 14 points.)
“We played one-on-one all the time growing up, so we know each other’s game. It’s a lot of fun,” Agunwa said.
The elder Okolie set a career high with six assists, which came in big spots. On a broken play, his clever pass from under the hoop found Johnson for a corner three that gave Harvard its first lead of the second half. And late in the game, after Okolie was stymied as the first option on a baseline out-of-bounds set late in the shot clock, he set up Miller for a three-point dagger.
“I thought he was the best player on the floor tonight, in a variety of different ways,” Amaker said. “We’ve seen him do the rebounding and scoring, but adding [the assists] to tonight’s performance was terrific.”
The Crimson’s free-throw issues have been well documented, so it was no surprise that Brown coach Mike Martin extended the game aggressively against the nation’s worst foul-shooting team. But Harvard — believe it or not — closed out the game comfortably, making 13 of 16 free throws down the stretch to beat the Bears for a 13th straight time.
”Sometimes it can become contagious in that way, just like it’s been contagious the other way,” Amaker said. “We were really pleased that we stepped up with confidence and saw the ball go through.”
The Crimson will host Yale on Saturday, continuing the league’s top rivalry of the last couple seasons. Five games separate them in the standings, but neither team will lack motivation: Harvard, to defend its home court for the first time in three seasons; Yale, to avenge last year’s season-ending playoff loss.