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Men's Basketball Ends Season with NIT Loss to Marquette

Justin Time
Sophomore guard Justin Bassey paced the team with 19 points and 4 steals.
MILWAUKEE Despite a season-high 11 steals and a career night from sophomore wing Justin Bassey, the Harvard men’s basketball team concluded its season with a 67-60 defeat to Marquette in the opening round of the NIT. The final game was also just the second time this season the Crimson played without Ivy League Player of the Year Seth Towns, who could not recover from a knee injury suffered in Sunday’s Ivy League Championship Game.

Harvard (18-14, 12-2 Ivy) trailed by as many as 19 in the fourth frame, but strung together 14 points and forced four turnovers in the final 5:08 to narrow the game to a two-possession contest heading into the final minute of play. Time simply ran out as accurate free throw shooting from the Golden Eagles (20-13, 9-9 Big East) sealed the contest after the Crimson was forced to prolong the game through fouling.

An unlucky play with 20 seconds remaining also did not help Harvard’s odds. After freshman Rio Haskett picked off the ball from senior Andrew Rowsey, Bassey located junior wing Corey Johnson on the left corner. However, right when the team’s three-point specialist was positioning himself for the triple, one of the referees collided with Johnson, sending the ball out of bounds.

The end result: Marquette ball by default. A noticeably aggravated Johnson gave the referee a prolonged stare, but nothing could be done except grant the Golden Eagles the ball. This frantic series was only a small portion of a wild final few minutes of the game.

“I wish we could have played better prior to the last few minutes when we made it a little chaotic,” Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said. “But I’m really proud of our team for the year we’ve had and I thought our kids did a tremendous job all season. Certainly not having a few bodies here today was a factor for us, but certainly not an excuse.”

This frenzy of momentum from Harvard in the game’s waning minutes was largely due to a full-court press that Amaker initiated with his team down by double-digits. On the first possession using this scheme at the seven-minute mark, Johnson snatched the ball from Marquette freshman Jamal Cain before driving into the lane and picking up two free throws.

West Side Corey
Junior guard Corey Johnson finished second in scoring behind Justin Bassey with 10 points.
Bassey, who notched his first career double-double on a career-high 19 points, followed that possession with a steal and dunk of his own with 6:27 to play. The sophomore wing would contribute another dunk and triple to finish the contest, but missed two critical free throws with 44 seconds to play that all but ended his team’s chances at a comeback. The Crimson was in the midst of an 11-3 run until that point, trailing by just six points.

“I thought Justin was really aggressive and when he has that mindset, we are a different team,” Amaker said. “I think it showed how he was going after the rebounds; he had 12 rebounds, some offensively. He was pushing the ball, in attack mode and when he has that vibe about him that’s a good thing for our team.”

Harvard held tight with the Golden Eagles for much of the first half despite turning the ball over 11 times and going just 2-of-8 from the NIT-only extended three-point line. Sophomore forward Chris Lewis was particularly affected by the NIT court modifications, which saw a wider foul lane. The Crimson’s main interior presence struggled to gain his footing against 6-foot-10 junior center Matt Heldt and was pushed even further out due to the extended painted area.

Heldt limited Lewis’ first half field goal attempts to just five, of which two were converted. The Marquette big man also picked up two blocks in the first twenty minutes of action. After the contest, Golden Eagles coach Steve Wojciechowski called his team’s post defense “terrific”.

Both sides maintained a tight defensive intensity during the first two frames, with neither side scoring more than 30 points. If not for a last-second three by sophomore forward Markus Howardwho finished the contest with a team-high 22 points off three triplesHarvard would have entered intermission with the game within one possession.

The 27-21 halftime score did however reflect the sub-35 percent shooting mark by both teams. The Crimson was just 1-of-5 from the free throw line entering halftime and 9-of-17 in the contest compared to Marquette’s one game missed shot attempt from the charity stripe, an anomaly for Amaker’s 72.9 percent free throw shooting team in conference play.

Marquette Mario
Freshman guard Rio Haskett made 2 of the team's 7 threes on the night before fouling out in the 4th quarter.
In the second half, the game appeared to swing completely in the Golden Eagles’ direction. Marquette launched a 9-4 run to start the third quarter, including two dunks in three possessions by redshirt sophomore wing Sacar Anim to extend a six-point halftime lead to 13. Harvard did not allow the contest to completely get away from them in the remainder of that frame, however, with important layups from Johnson and Bassey.

The lead did extend to 19 early in the fourth quarter, but the aforementioned comeback was only a few triples away.

Overall, Harvard finished its final game shooting 41.5 percent from the field and 7-of-20 from three point range. Without leading scorer Towns, Harvard relied on a more balanced array of shooters to provide offense. Lewis, Juzang, Johnson, and Haskett finished with over eight points in the game, with Bassey leading the team at 19.

All told, the Crimson finishes the season having lost its final two postseason games after earning the regular-season Ivy League title. Against power conference opponents such as Kentucky, Minnesota, and Marquette, Harvard has lost by no more than 10 pointsa feat that Bassey noted as a positive takeaway from this season.

“I think we played those guys really well, they were really close games, all 5, 7, 10 point games,” Bassey said. “So knowing that we’re right there and knowing that we just gotta make a few more adjustments, play a little bit better, get all guys involved, then we’re a team that’s capable of competing and playing against those top 25 teams.”

This Justin
In addition to leading the team in points and steals, sophomore guard Justin Bassey also paced the team with 12 rebounds and 5 assists.
One could also take Amaker’s closing lineup in this contest as an embodiment of his “bench-and-balance” mantra this season. Few would have predicted in November that freshmen Rio Haskett and Danilo Djuricic as well as sophomore big Henry Welsh, Johnson, and Bassey would man the floor in the season finale’s most critical minutes. However, this lineup provided Amaker’s best shot at running his full-court press and nearly paid off with enormous dividends. Haskett and Djuricic, in particular, have progressed from fringe reserves to solid bench contributors over the course of the season.

“Sometimes you think young players and freshmen, they end up hitting the wall the proverbial wall that young players can hit,” Amaker said. “We didn’t have that with those two guys, they kept getting better throughout the season and it was wonderful to see. Obviously we had that kind of confidence in them to have them in the game tonight, in the postseason riding with them throughout.”

The Crimson returns all members of its rotation in the 2018-2019 season as the program seeks to repeat as Ivy League Champions for the second straight season. Harvard will welcome a talented crop of freshmen next season, including Mater Dei PG Spencer Freedman and Djuricic’s teammate on Team Canada, Noah Kirkwood. These reinforcements will be critical for a team that finished the season with junior guard Tommy McCarthy, sophomores Bryce Aiken and Seth Towns, and freshman Reed Farley all injured.

“I know we’ll look back on this[season] and have a great deal of pride,” Amaker said. “What we were able to accomplish with some of the tough moments we had this year, with injuries and with different things that occurred for our team. So I’m really proud for this team to accomplish what it did.”

—Staff writer Henry Zhu can be reached at henry.zhu@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @Zhuhen88.

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