Two nights, two very different cities, two very different results.
That could be the tagline to describe the Harvard men's basketball weekend trip, when it travelled to Cornell and Columbia to resume its tough Ivy league schedule.
On Friday, the Crimson (11-7, 4-2 Ivy) was in sleepy Ithaca, N.Y., dismantling the weak Big Red squad (5-13, 1-4), 65-57, with the type of stifling defense that has become a Harvard hallmark.
The next night, five hours and a world away, the team was in Manhattan taking on the perennially challenging Columbia Lions (8-11, 3-3). Light Blue forward Craig Austin torched the Crimson for 25 points, but his team also blew a 22-point lead to the Crimson, who pulled within five but ultimately fell 65-55.
By splitting the weekend doubleheader, Harvard drops into third place in the Ivy League behind Penn and Princeton.
Columbia 65, Harvard 55
The Crimson made the trip accross New York on Saturday, but by halftime probably wished it hadn't.
Columbia, buoyed by a three-game winning streak and a pre-game celebration of its undefeated 1951 championship squad, blew out of the blocks so quickly the game looked like it was over midway through the first half, with the Lions sporting a 23-7 lead.
The Light Blue had all the numbers in its favor in the first half. As a team, it shot 11-of-23 ( 47.8 percent) from the floor, including hitting 5-of-10 from three-point land. Meanwhile Harvard struggled, shooting 9-of-30 (30 percent) and only 2-of-10 from beyond the arc.
"We didn't do a good job defensively, and we were not rebounding," sophomore point guard Elliott Prasse-Freeman said about the first half. "We got desperate and started fouling, and they hit their free throws."
Columbia shot 36 free throws in the game, converting 25 of them.
Down 40-23 after the first half, things got worse before they got better for Harvard. The Lions scored the first five points of the second half, and got its largest lead of the game, 45-23, when Austin hit a three-pointer with 18:29 left to play.
The Crimson turned a complete 180 degrees after that. Harvard scored 12 points in a row, then seven more to go on a 19-2 run. Columbia did not hit a field goal for another 12 minutes.
Sophomore guard Patrick Harvey's three-pointer with 4:38 left brought Harvard as close as it was going to get at 51-46. Even though Harvard had narrowed the gap, it had used defense to get there (the Crimson only shot 10-of-30 in the second half), and the Lions couldn't be stopped entirely. Columbia went on a 9-0 run to finish the Crimson off.
"It was a matter of us playing the game we know how to play," Prasse-Freeman said. "It was a disappointment that we didn't get over the hump."
The Crimson's numbers were abnormal and abysmal. The team's leading scorers, Harvey and senior forward Dan Clemente, had only 14 and ten points, respectively, while the team as a whole only shot 9-of-20 (45 percent) from the free-throw line. Additionally, Harvard got out-rebounded, 45-36, and had trouble containing center Chris Wiedemann, who finished with 12 points and 12 rebounds along with four blocks.
Harvard 65, Cornell 57
In direct opposition to the Columbia game, it was Harvard that went up on Cornell in the second half, and then withstood a comeback by the Big Red before closing the deal, 65-57.
The key to the Crimson's success was once again defense, as evidenced by Cornell's 20-of-58 (34.5 percent) field goal shooting and a pathetic 6-of-24 from three-point range.
The game stayed close in the first half as Harvard could only get the lead to six twice in the first half. Junior guard Drew Gellert led the way, garnering eight points in the half including two top-of-the-key three-pointers. Sophomore center Brian Sigafoos also had an impressive half, picking up seven rebounds and constantly frustrating Big Red center Greg Barratt, who went 0-for-5 from the floor in the first half and finished the game with only two points.
Harvard began to pull away with ten minutes left in the second half. Leading 45-43, the Crimson held Cornell scoreless for over six minutes.
Meanwhile, Harvard's pressure defense created great results. Prasse-Freeman scored four straight points, and after a lay-up by Sigafoos, Gellert stole the ball and fed it to Prasse-Freeman. The sophomore point guard then was fouled and hit both free throws.
Following a timeout, Harvey picked off a pass, which led to an impressive dunk by sophomore forward Sam Winter. Twenty seconds later, Harvey got another steal and scored the two points himself.
At this point, the Crimson was up 57-45 with three minutes left and looking to put the nail in the coffin.
But like the game against Hartford earlier in the week, Harvard couldn't handle the pressure well. Turnovers let the Big Red back into the game, and Cornell pulled to within four on Jake Rohe's three-pointer with 55 seconds left to play.
Time was on Harvard's side, however. Cornell was forced to foul, and Clemente made all four of his free throw attempts in the final minute to seal the eight-point victory.
"At the end our defense was good," Prasse-Freeman said. "But we had trouble handling pressure and hitting free throws. We've only been good at times," he said, referring to the Crimson's tendency to lose some late leads.
While the Cornell victory was important, the loss to Columbia puts the Crimson's post-season hopes in jeopardy only six games in to the Ivy season. Having lost to Yale at home before the break, and facing Penn and Princeton this weekend, the Crimson faces some dire straits.
"We pretty much have to play excellent basketball from here on out," Prasse-Freeman said. "There's no margin for error. It's a feeling of desperation."
That may be the Crimson's tagline for the rest of the season.