The Crimson (17-12, 12-2 Ivy) had held a comfortable margin against the Lions (8-19, 5-9) for the majority of the contest, leading by as much as 25 in the second half. After sophomore forward Henry Welsh extended the lead to 88-69 with an acrobatic wraparound layup, coach Tommy Amaker turned toward his bench and re-inserted his three seniors back into the court, one-by-one.
Senior captain Chris Egi was the first to check in, followed by guard Andre Chatfield. Two possessions later, forward Zach Yoshor stepped onto the court.
The three seniors were freshmen the last time Harvard put up a conference banner in Lavietes Pavilion and the only group who had experienced the thrills of the NCAA Tournament. Although the group saw little game action in conference play, Egi and his classmates played an important mentorship role to this young Crimson team and were three critical pieces of the team’s “19 Strong.”
In fitting fashion, the last points in Harvard’s 93-74 blowout win came from one of the seniors—in the form of a triple. From the top of the circle, Chatfield drilled his second game attempt from three and increased the Crimson’s count of triples to 17, a remarkable tally that tied a program record.
Before the clock hit zero, sophomore point guard Christian Juzang waved Egi over, handing his captain the ball to ensure this historic moment concluded in the hands of the senior. The story of the sixth-ever Ivy League championship for Harvard men’s basketball had been written.
“Having the opportunity to have a chance to win a championship and being able to win it, you definitely don’t take that for granted,” Egi said. “You’ll be a champion forever so good way to go out. I love these guys. These guys mean everything to me, seeing all the young guys doing their thing on the court and I’m just trying to do my best to help in anyway possible. Being able to win with my brothers, my family, that means everything to me.”
MAGIC FROM DEEP
From the opening four minutes, there was a noticeable feeling in the crowd that this would be a special night from deep range. Sophomore forward Seth Towns had knocked down back-to-back triples in the initial two-and-a-half minutes, followed by a three from sophomore Christian Juzang a minute later. Overall, the Crimson went six-of-eight from deep in the opening ten minutes.
The accurate three-point shooting didn’t end there, though. Junior wing Corey Johnson, who already converted two threes in those first ten minutes, added another at the 4:25 mark. Sophomore forward Justin Bassey and freshman guard Rio Haskett tallied two more.
In particular, Haskett’s two game triples capstoned a noticeable turn-around in the freshman’s offensive game this season. The freshman guard had been shooting 27 percent from the field prior to conference play, and had converted on just five triples out of 30 attempts in that span. Haskett has shown much more confidence in his offensive game in recent weeks, showcased by a four-of-seven night last week against Princeton. Tonight was another positive sign.
“We have a phrase we use, let the shot find you,” Amaker said. “I thought [Rio] did that. He wasn’t hunting his own shot. He was moving it, fitting in. The ball is being reversed, kicking to him and he is wide open. It is a rhythm shot, it feels right. Those are the shots you want to take and you will live with the result.”
All in all, Harvard’s 60.7 percent night from three is an indication not simply of accurate shooting, but improved court awareness and targeting of open teammates on the perimeter. On Friday night, the Crimson logged 20 assists—the second highest of the season. The season’s highest? Saturday night, when Harvard totaled 24 assists. Juzang and Bassey led the team with seven dishes each alongside their combined six game triples.
“I thought the start and our ability to really be in attack mode, with 24 assists and share the ball and make the shots that we made,” Amaker said. “Just a tremendous effort from our kids to share the ball and be unselfish.”
BUILDING ON THE CRIMSON LEGACY
Before Saturday night’s game, Amaker gathered his team in the locker room and showed his young team video clips of past Ivy champions. Given Amaker had won five straight Ivy championships from 2011-2015, the 11-year coach certainly had a breadth of content to draw from.
Harvard basketball royalty was also in the stands to watch the Crimson hold up the Princeton Alumni Trophy for the sixth time in program history. Last year’s co-captain Zena Edosomwan enthusiastically supported his former teammates from courtside, while 2010-2012 captain Oliver McNally also watched from the stands.
Johnson in particular noted the past accomplishments of the program built by these alumni, and emphasized that the task at hand was to continue this legacy by earning another NCAA tournament berth.
“Personally, it really just motivates us and gives us that fire, that edge, to really see how close we were and see the past teams and players,” Johnson said. “When I was getting recruited here, the players that I first met like Siyani [Chambers] and Jonah [Travis] and Steve [Moundou-Missi], all those players, Laurent [Rivard], just huge names in this program. Just seeing what they’ve done and how much they’ve achieved at Harvard and just to be in that mention now is surreal for us. We’ve still got a lot of work to do like I said, but we do feel really good about where we are right now.”
As Johnson concluded, Harvard will need to continue its hot shooting streak of late into the postseason if it hopes to see a return to the Big Dance. Having just made the trip to the Palestra the prior week, the Crimson faces No. 4 seed Cornell in the semifinals of the Ivy League Tournament this Saturday at noon.
Although it has checked off one box, there are still many boxes left remaining in March.
“We are very proud of this team,” Amaker said. “It is a very young team and it has been a few years since we have been able to say that about Harvard Basketball, being Ivy champions. I’m sure at some point we will look at this and find it to be incredibly rewarding.”
—Staff writer Henry Zhu can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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