#1 Harvard 74, #4 Cornell 55: Juzang, Crimson Outshoot Big Red

When he was a freshman, Christian Juzang watched all of Harvard’s first-ever Ivy League Tournament game from the bench. As the team’s fourth-string point guard (and the least-heralded of seven rookies in the Crimson’s nationally ranked recruiting class), Juzang didn’t play a meaningful minute in league play, and he could only watch as his team’s NCAA tournament hopes were dashed in an upset loss to Yale.

The beginning of his sophomore season went the same way: Juzang played only spot minutes early on and fell out of the rotation entirely within a month. But after star point guard Bryce Aiken’s injury, Juzang was pressed into service as a full-time point guard, gradually fitting in with the offense and developing a knack for getting hot.

He did just that on his biggest stage to date. Trailing #4-seed Cornell near halftime of the first semifinal, Juzang hit a trio of three-pointers in 75 seconds before halftime — the last a 37-foot buzzer-beater from the Ivy League logo at halfcourt — to give the Crimson an unexpected five-point lead at the break. “Corey Johnson actually beat me in HORSE the other day from that spot, so I looked at him after. It felt good,” Juzang said.

He added another shortly after halftime, finishing with 12 points and four assists. Juzang hasn’t been a perfect player for Harvard this year — nor was he on Saturday, struggling early and launching two kick-out passes onto press row. But the sophomore, despite his relative lack of experience, plays with a visible self-confidence matched by few in the Ivy League. “I knew he could knock it down, because he has the confidence to do it,” said Chris Lewis, who passed to Juzang for the shot near halfcourt.

“I think the trust that my teammates and coaches have in me has accumulated over time this season — that gives me that confidence,” Juzang said. “The fact that Lewis is going to throw me the ball in a moment like that, the fact that my coaches are behind me and trust me. The little things like that really make the biggest difference in my confidence.”

Juzang’s shooting opened the floodgates for the top seed. After going only 2-for-11 from three-point range to start the game — with several open shots rattling in and out — the Crimson made eight of their next 12 shots from deep to pull away. It was a familiar, sinking feeling for the Big Red, which watched Harvard make 48% of its three-pointers to win both regular-season meetings by close margins.

As if to underscore the point, with the game slipping away from Cornell in the second half, Seth Towns misjudged an entry pass to Chris Lewis — and threw it so wildly that it swished through the basket for three points.

Cornell students cheered on their team in vain at The Palestra.

Cornell’s defense, its weakness this season, was surprisingly good early on. The Big Red’s swarming matchup zone took away some of Harvard’s usual sets, limiting Chris Lewis’ touches in the post and walling off pick-and-rolls. The Crimson scored almost exclusively on hero-ball offense from Ivy POY Seth Towns, who scored 12 first-half points but needed 11 shots to get there. (Towns finished with a game-high 24 points and 12 rebounds.)

The Big Red led 28-21 with three minutes left in the first half. But their defense then fell apart, making sloppy plays in transition or rotating off open shooters. Juzang’s barrage, plus key points off the bench from Rio Haskett and Robert Baker, led a furious 16-4 run that turned the game around before halftime.

Aside from one short sequence — when Cornell’s full-court press forced its first steal and Matt Morgan hit an NBA-range trey early in the second half, pulling the Big Red within two points — Harvard carried its momentum through the rest of the game. Despite facing a full-court press for most of the game, the Crimson committed only eight turnovers. And its defense, which struggled to contain Cornell’s constant screening action at Lavietes Pavilion one week ago, was outstanding after halftime, allowing only 23 points on 30 possessions to pull away.

“Our emphasis in practice was to guard people off the ball. That’s [Morgan’s] bread and butter, to move off the ball like that, so we definitely practiced it,” Towns said.

Cornell wasn’t expected to reach The Palestra this year, having been picked sixth in the preseason poll. With no seniors in their regular rotation, the Big Red can dream of returning to the playoffs next year and avenging their loss. But most of the rest of the league will be back, too — no seniors made either of the two All-Ivy teams — and Cornell, which was below the Ivy average in both offensive and defensive efficiency, will need to improve considerably just to keep up.

“We are a work in progress. We’ve been able to get some tough wins … but a lot of those games could’ve gone the other way,” Cornell coach Brian Earl said. “It’s nice to make the tournament, but I think you have to realize that a few things went our way that weren’t in our control. So we should celebrate the year we had, but when we get back to work, we should realize that the margin is so thin — it could’ve been Columbia, it could’ve been Princeton, it could’ve been Brown — it just happened to be us, and by no means does that mean it’ll be us next year. They need to know that, they do know that from my postgame speech, and that should motivate them if they want to be back here next year.”

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