It was the second overtime, and Noah Kirkwood looked tired. The sophomore guard had just missed a three point shot badly, making him 1-for-9 from beyond the arc. But when Harvard needed points most, it turned to Kirkwood and he delivered, as he so often has in the absence of Bryce Aiken. First, with the Crimson down three points, he drained a difficult, stepback long two from the top of the key. Then, with the game knotted at 69 with just over a minute to play, the Ottawa native, again isolated at the top of the key, drilled a triple to give Harvard a lead it would not relinquish. When a Mike Smith would-be game-tying triple came up short, Kirkwood was fouled and walked to the line having missed four of his first six free throw attempts. But that did not matter, either. He cooly knocked down both free throws and — finally — put the game away, allowing the Crimson to sneak past Columbia 77-73 at Lavietes Pavilion on Saturday.
“Over the course of the season so far without [Aiken], a big clutch player on our team, coach has really allowed me to have that spot now and given me the confidence, and more importantly my team has given me that confidence,” said Kirkwood. “Even though my shot wasn’t falling, every time down guys were saying ‘keep shooting, keeping shooting, it will fall,’ and that’s really what got me going.”
The game felt very familiar.
“Unbelievable,” head coach Tommy Amaker said. “I don’t know what it is about us with Columbia but it certainly has been par for the course for a number of years now in terms of how tight and overtimes and amazing games that both teams have played.”
A year ago, it was Aiken who prevented what would have been a crushing loss at home against the Lions with an improbable off-balance, double-clutch three pointer that sent the game to double overtime. Harvard eventually won in triple overtime on the back of Aiken’s career-high 44 points, overcoming an inspired road effort by a team with one win in league play.
Saturday night, the Crimson (16-7, 5-3 Ivy) again entered a home matchup against one-win Columbia (6-18, 1-7) as a substantial favorite. But as was the case in both meetings last year — the game in Morningside Heights also went to overtime — this was the furthest thing from a walk in the park for Harvard. With Aiken out indefinitely with a sprained foot, Columbia’s Smith was the diminutive point guard who put on a show, nearly willing the Lions to victory.
First, with Columbia down by two points at the end of regulation and the shot clock unplugged, Smith weaved his way through the Crimson’s defense and made a layup to knot the game at 53, completing a 6-0 Lions run in the game’s last three minutes. Harvard, which had led for most of regulation, then had two chances to win the game without overtime. A loose ball following a missed three by senior point guard Christian Juzang caromed off of Columbia with 1.4 seconds to play, but the Crimson was unable to get a shot off after the inbound, as Juzang’s effort to create space for a game-winning three resulted in a travel.
Overtime meant more of the Mike Smith show. To an even greater degree than in regulation, when Smith scored 19 of Columbia’s 32 first half points before cooling off in the second stanza, the Lions became a one-man team. And it came ever so close to working. Smith poured in 15 more points on 11 shots across the two overtimes and finished with a nearly Aikenian 38 on 17-of-37 shooting.
“We certainly could not guard him,” said Amaker. “He’s fast, quick, and shifty, and so creative with the ball. He doesn’t get tired and he just has a great deal of confidence and he’s so creative and crafty, with shot fakes and step-throughs. You try not to foul him, so it takes a lot of effort and discipline to try to defend that kid.”
Smith’s NBA-range three pointer — which he took without hesitation with Juzang right in his face — put Columbia up by two with 24 seconds to go in overtime, and after a missed Juzang three it appeared that Smith’s heroics were going to be enough to secure a monumental upset.
But nobody informed senior forward Justin Bassey of that likelihood. As he has done so often throughout his Harvard career, including with a vital rebound in last season’s triple overtime win, Bassey made the big hustle play when it counted. He snatched the offensive rebound from Juzang’s miss and converted the putback to send the game to a second overtime — and the sixth overtime in the last three games between these two teams.
Smith then had a good look to win the game at the buzzer, but his three rimmed out, setting the stage for the second overtime and for Kirkwood’s heroics.
Before the late-game fireworks, the packed student section did not have many opportunities to erupt in what was a low-scoring, sloppy affair, as Saturday nights in the Ivy League often produce. The main exceptions came on a number of tremendous blocks by the Crimson’s rim protectors. Senior forwards Chris Lewis and Robert Baker repelled three shots apiece, with Lewis stifling three attempts at the rim in a 10-minute span and Baker rejecting a pair of shots at the rim and a three point attempt by Columbia’s Jake Killingsworth, who was surprised by the amount of ground the spindly senior was able to quickly cover.
“They had a big time presence back there, which they should,” said Amaker. “We have always had that in our program. We’ve taken pride in the back line of our defense all the way through the years. These guys have adopted that and have been tremendous for us, so it’s an added weapon for us on the defensive end.”
Harvard’s winning streak at home — it remains undefeated at Lavietes Pavilion this season — had largely been spurred by strong shooting, but the Crimson’s touch from deep abandoned it on Saturday. Harvard connected on just eight of its 43 three point attempts, easily the team’s worst shooting performance in league play. Lewis made a number of timely baskets, including an and-one layup to tie the game at 69 in the second overtime. In addition to his three thunderous blocks, the Alpharetta, Ga., native finished with 16 points, joining Kirkwood (22) and Juzang (10) in double figures, and a team-high 11 rebounds and four steals.
“With our offense, a lot of the time we just have to realize that [Lewis] is our main guy, we go through him and we play inside-out, that’s our big calling card,” said Kirkwood. “On a lot of possessions we were settling for threes that we just weren’t making. So when that was going on we really went through [Lewis] a lot more and then the kickouts helped us a lot from him. He was a great player today.”
The Lions matched the Crimson’s futile shooting. Harvard shot 37% from the field and 19% from three; Columbia finished at 37% and 17%. Aside from Smith, only forward Ike Nweke, who was plagued by foul trouble for most of the first half and finished with 11 points, scored for the Lions in either overtime period.
The win paired with a Yale loss brings Harvard within a game of first in the Ivy League and keeps the Crimson in a three-team tie for third place with six games to play. Harvard will have the chance to avenge losses at Princeton and Penn next weekend as it looks to stay in the hunt for an Ivy League championship.
— Staff writer Lev Cohen can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @LevTHC.