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Deja Vu for Harvard as Men's Basketball Suffers Second Straight Heartbreaking Defeat to Yale, 62-59

Junior guard Luka Sakota in action in a 74-64 win over Babson on Dec. 6. Sakota missed a game-tying three point attempt on Thursday night against Yale.
Junior guard Luka Sakota in action in a 74-64 win over Babson on Dec. 6. Sakota missed a game-tying three point attempt on Thursday night against Yale. By Dylan J. Goodman
By Lev Cohen, Crimson Staff Writer

Harvard mustered a late comeback but fell 62-59 to Yale on Wednesday night at a rocking Lavietes Pavilion, a second consecutive three-point loss to the Ivy League-leading Bulldogs (13-9, 7-1 Ivy League). A career-best performance from senior center Mason Forbes was not enough to propel the Crimson (11-9, 3-5 Ivy) to victory as a last second three-pointer from junior guard Luka Sakota fell short, sending Harvard to an 0-3 home start in conference play.

Four days after suffering a narrow defeat in New Haven, Conn., the Crimson again struggled to score and trailed for almost the entire game. Harvard’s only lead came in the first few minutes, when Forbes asserted himself with two and-one baskets and an emphatic block as the Crimson jumped out in front, 7-3. Then,after falling behind by as many as 14 points midway through the second half, Harvard gradually chipped away at the deficit, just as it had on Saturday in New Haven, eventually cutting the lead to one in the final minute.

Most of the Crimson’s offensive success came fromForbes, who scored a career-high 22 points on 8-of-12 shooting and added three emphatic blocks. The Folsom, Calif., native has missed most of the season due to injury but scored almost at will in the paint, especially when he attacked from the baseline and could finish around Yale defenders with a reverse layup.

“I’m obviously coming off a long road of recovery,” Forbes said. “[It] has been an uphill battle throughout the season for me, but I’m lucky to have supportive teammates. My parents have been super supportive and having the coaches believe in me and my game makes it that much easier to just go out there and do what I do.”

But Forbes’s heroics were for naught as the Crimson fell short in its final two offensive trips, with senior guard and leading scorer Noah Kirkwood failing to earn a whistle on his game-tying layup attempt before Sakota came up just short on his clean look from three that would have sent the game to overtime.

Kirkwood again struggled to get going, following up a two-point first half in New Haven with a similarly slow start at home. Harvard’s offensive fulcrum finished with only nine points on 3-of-13 shooting and added just one assist. Kirkwood began to look comfortable inside the arc late in the game, when he worked the ball into the post and generated a few good looks for himself and his teammates, but his three-point stroke continued to elude him. After a 1-for-8 performance, he has hit just four of his last 23 long-range efforts over four games.

Kirkwood’s struggles from three are emblematic of a long-term team-wide shooting slump. Another cold shooting night leaves the Crimson shooting just 29 percent from deep in the team’s last 12 games, a bad omen for a team that has generally relied on three-point shooting to generate efficient offense.

Head coach Tommy Amaker shuffled his lineup early in the second half with Kirkwood and Sakota struggling and for one three-minute stretch also played without Forbes, turning instead to inexperienced substitutes first-year guard Evan Nelson, sophomore guard Sam Silverstein, and sophomore forward Justice Ajogbor.

“You’re trying to get guys to see the game differently,” Amaker said. “We were trying to manage [Forbes’] minutes, at least we were trying to at that point… But the other two kids — sometimes you need to take a step back and see it from the bench and see the energy that other kids are bringing and hopefully fill in from there. It didn’t help them offensively but they did what they could do.”

Nelson and Silverstein joined Forbes as bright spots from Wednesday’s performance, contributing 19 combined points off the bench. Silverstein nailed two three-pointers down the stretch — one from each corner — to get Harvard back into the game, cutting the Yale lead to four and then three inside the last four minutes.

“I cannot say enough about Evan Nelson and Mason Forbes and Sam Silverstein,” Amaker said. “I thought those three kids were incredible for us tonight. I feel horrible for our team obviously, but in particular those three kids who — you talk about putting your heart on the line and playing in a manner that was somewhat of a desperation and urgency, and the team fed off of it, our crowd did.”

The Crimson played a strong defensive game, limiting Yale to 41 percent shooting and the conference’s leading scorer Azar Swain to nine points, his joint lowest of the season, on 3-of-12 shooting. Yale hit just two shots — both layups, one of which came off a Harvard turnover — in the game’s final 10 minutes, supplementing their scoring with frequent trips to the line.

First-year guard Louis Lesmond joined a long list of injured Crimson contributors and did not play, leaving Amaker with the eight-man rotation that he relied on. Lesmond will not have long to recover before Harvard’s next game, a crucial showdown at Penn on Saturday. The Crimson is a game and a half out of fourth in the Ivy League and will hope to stay within striking distance of a spot in the Ivy League Tournament, which will begin March 12 at Lavietes Pavilion.

— Staff writer Lev Cohen can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @LevTHC.

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