IT'S AWESOME, BABY!
AFTER NINE YEARS OF WAITING, 17 LOSSES, CRIMSON TOPS PRINCETON, SALVAGES .500 SEASON
It is said that good teams finish strong.
For the Harvard men's basketball team, it was such a 3-0 homestretch--including a historic 87-79 overtime win against vaunted Princeton before a sellout crowd in Lavietes Pavilion--that put this year's team and its senior class on the map of Harvard hoops history.
A season that began with senior shooting guard Mike Beam's 30-footer in over-time to lift the Crimson (13-13, 7-7 Ivy) over Boston College will clearly be remembered for its penultimate weekend.
After stretching Ivy League champion Penn to the wire in a 81-76 setback at Lavietes Pavilion, Harvard returned to its home court and broke a 17-game winless streak against last year's league champion, Princeton.
After dusting Brown and Yale on consecutive nights the following weekend, Harvard secured one of its main goals for the season--the school's record for wins over a four-year period--with 58.
"[In the record-setting game against Brown] it was amazing how focused everyone was," said sophomore forward Dan Clemente. "We knew we wanted to go out and get the record, and it's great for the seniors that we did."
The team also posted its fourth consecutive season at or above .500, a feat not seen at Harvard since 1928, making this year's senior class--Beam, point guard Tim Hill, captain center Paul Fisher, center Bill Ewing and forward Chris Dexter--the winningest in school history.
In winning its final three league contests, the Crimson rose to fourth in the Ivy League at 7-7, finishing in the top half of the league for the fourth straight year.
For the first time in nine years, the Crimson sent the Tigers back to their den behind a monster night from Hill, who will play professionally for Gunco Rotterdam in the Netherlands next year after finishing one of the greatest careers ever in a Crimson jersey.
Hill's 27 points, five boards and four assists are proof enough. He also played the entire 45 minutes of the overtime contest and led an especially effective defensive effort that held Princeton under 40-percent shooting on the evening.
Hill earned first-team All-Ivy League status, averaging 16.0 points per game on the season. He finished his collegiate career with a school-record 590 assists, and led the league with 6.6 assists per game in his final campaign. Harvard's seventh all-time leading scorer, he is the first Crimson player ever to tally 1,000 points and 500 assists in a career.
The Crimson led much of the way against Princeton, as Clemente showed a shooting touch to complement Hill's heroics. Harvard led 35-29 at the half, and threatened to blow Princeton out of the water before Princeton's freshman center Chris Young got in the act and put Harvard's big men, Ewing and Clemente, in foul trouble.
Princeton closed the gap, but Beam finally got on track after struggling much of the night, scoring all 11 of his points in the game's final 12 minutes as the Crimson held on and out-shot the Tigers in overtime as the Lavietes crowd went wild.
"Without a doubt it's the best win of my career," Hill said. "This was the only team we hadn't beaten in my four years; we couldn't have asked for a better night."
An experienced and senior-laden team, Harvard opened the season on a high note with wins over Boston College and Holy Cross.
However, the team struggled to find consistency on the interior, especially on the defensive end. It also had difficulty adapting to the loss and gradual recovery of standout quick forward Clemente. He was hobbled throughout the season with a degenerative ankle condition, but still finished second on the team with 14.7 points per game and shot 41.7 percent from behind the three-point line.
Clemente had off-season surgery on his ankle and will train this summer by playing in the Staples Beantown Pro-Am League. His rehabilitation should be complete by the beginning of next season.
These latent personnel holes and chemistry problems were a source of frustration throughout much of the season.
Harvard dropped five of its first six contests after Thanksgiving, posting a solid 79-64 win over Sacred Heart amidst setbacks to middling opponents that included Marist and Boston University.
Three of the five losses saw Harvard surrender more than 70 points. Crimson opponents shot better than 45 percent from the floor against the Crimson this year, an uncomfortable statistic against which the team fought all season.
With a 6'3, 6'7, 6'9 starting frontcourt for much of the season, Harvard struggled to exert a presence inside--a task made even more difficult since the 6'7 Clemente is an especially perimeter- and jumpshot-minded big man.
After mixed results over the winter break, the team entered Ivy play in earnest.
Showing flashes of excellence, the team blitzed Cornell 70-56 in Ithaca and came within two points of upstart Dartmouth, losing 69-67 in Hanover.
However, inconsistent shooting and post-play woes removed the Crimson from serious contention by the midpoint of Ivy schedule. After Fisher went down with mononucleosis for the final month of the season, it seemed that Harvard's mid-season improvements would go for naught.
But Fisher was replaced in the lineup by Ewing, who played the most inspired basketball of his Harvard career down the stretch of the season.
Ewing first burst onto the Harvard basketball scene as an active, shot-blocking 6'10 sophomore as the first man off the bench to reinforce then-seniors Chris Grancio and Kyle Snowden. Ewing struggled at time to step into a leading role as an upperclassman, but after Fisher's illness forced him into the starting role Ewing played with aggression and intelligence.
Ewing scored ten points and grabbed 13 rebounds in a double-double effort in the Princeton upset, and led all regular contributors with an impressive 59.5 field-goal percentage on the season. He also dominated in shot blocking. His 47 rejections dwarf junior Damian Long's eight, the team's second highest total. The total is also good for second on the school's all-time list.
Beam made substantial strides this season as well. In addition to draining the game-winner at B.C., he led the team with 68 three-pointers, averaged 11.0 points per game, and set Harvard's record to three-pointers in a game with seven on 7-of-9 shooting in a win over Yale.
Perhaps the most unanticipated and encouraging development for the Crimson this season was the emergence of freshmen guards Drew Gellert and Patrick Harvey. In a season dominated by seniors, the two became an increasingly important part of the team's arsenal as the season progressed.
Despite seeing very limited action in the first half of the season, Gellert was second on the team in both assists and steals with 50 and 33, respectively. Harvey was third on the team in three-point-shooting percentage at 40.0, and added 18 steals and 20 assists.
In a backcourt occasionally guilty of stagnation and complacence, the freshmen provided activity and defensive intensity.
Perhaps even more importantly, with entire starting backcourt departing this year, the two proved that they had the sense, maturity, and ability to step in immediately in the fall.
RECORD: 13-13, 7-7 Ivy
COACH: Frank Sullivan
CAPTAIN: Paul Fisher
KEY PLAYERS: Tim Hill (16.0 ppg, 6.1 apg), Dan Clemente (14.7 ppg, 41.7 percent three-point shooting), Fisher (10.7 ppg, 7.3 rpg)