CHESTNUT HILL, Mass.—Senior point guard Elliott Prasse-Freeman has been waiting to experience March Madness for four years. On Sunday, he missed out on the closest thing to it so far.
Prasse-Freeman was banished to the bench for the most thrilling moments of what will probably be the Crimson’s most exhilarating loss of the season, an 84-77 setback to Boston College at Conte Forum.
With 5:20 left in regulation, he was whistled for a foul on Eagles’ All-American guard Troy Bell—his fifth of the game—and that ended his day. Harvard coach Frank Sullivan subbed in sophomore Jason Norman and Prasse-Freeman, an incredulous grin on his face, stood in front of the Harvard bench gazing at the scoreboard.
“Sit down, 15, you ain’t coming back in,” yelped one of the two BC fans that filled out the depleted ranks of the student section. Maybe Prasse-Freeman heard the catcall—the gym, only half-filled, was that quiet. Silent enough, in fact, to cause Sullivan to remark to his team during a timeout, “the atmosphere’s dead around here.”
Maybe Prasse-Freeman wouldn’t be missing much. Harvard was trailing by nine in the game and had not challenged much in the second half. The Crimson was never expected to win this one anyway.
Except, all of a sudden, things got interesting.
Without Prasse-Freeman, Harvard turned out of necessity to Patrick Harvey, the Crimson’s shooting guard and default backup at the point, to run the floor. The senior was up to the task, hitting four straight free throws to open Harvard’s scoring in the final five minutes. Moments later, he fed captain Brady Merchant for a baseline three-pointer at the 3:30 mark that trimmed BC’s lead to a one-possession margin for the first time since the first half.
After a pair of free throws by Bell, Harvey led the Crimson back down the floor. He missed a three, but after senior center Brian Sigafoos tapped the rebound back to him, Harvey found Norman, who spotted up and drained a three-pointer from the left wing. That moved Harvard within two, 75-73, and the Crimson bench let out a collective yell as the players leaped out of their chairs.
“Huge,” Merchant said. “That was a huge shot.”
Sullivan swore after the game that he was having no flashbacks to the 1998 season, when Harvard stole a win at BC on a Mike Beam ’99 buzzer-beater three. (“Nah,” the coach shrugged when asked after the game. “Honestly, no. Uh… no. I mean, no. No.”).
Fair enough. Still, this might’ve been why BC hadn’t scheduled a rematch until now. Norman’s basket capped a 12-3 Harvard run. Sullivan, who would mouth platitudes about a perceived lack of respect after the game, was feverishly drawing up plays during timeouts. BC coach Al Skinner was subbing his best players back into the game. And the crowd was finally taking notice, urged on by the Jumbotron to make noise that approached “wicked loud” decibels.
It sort of had the feel of March Madness. In December.
“I think the exact words that went through my head were, ‘We’re right there. We’re there,’” Merchant said about his mindset at the time. “[Norman’s three] is the kind of shot you have to have in a game like this.”
Most impressive of all, the Crimson was making its run without its true point guard. Like a lot of Harvard players Sunday, Prasse-Freeman got into foul trouble early. Less than six minutes into the game, he had already been charged with two.
At that point in first half, sophomore Kevin Rogus came up off the bench to spell him. That allowed Sullivan to move Harvey to the point and still have a bona fide outside shooter off the ball. The sophomore made the most of his minutes, hitting on consecutive rainbow treys. Harvey assisted on both.
But that lineup only worked for so long. At another point, when both Prasse-Freeman and Harvey were out, Sullivan had Merchant try bringing the ball up the floor. Seconds later, he got crossed up on a pass intended for Norman, as the sophomore cutted right when Merchant wanted to deliver him the ball. The captain’s bounce pass flitted out of bounds and Prasse-Freeman reentered the game immediately.
In years past when Prasse-Freeman exited the game, Drew Gellert ’02 could slide over to the point and the Harvard offense could continue without missing a beat. Harvard was still able to draw up plays for Harvey, whose only concern was working to get himself open.
It’s a whole different ballgame now when Harvey’s also the one who has to take the ball up the court. You can’t very well pass to yourself.
“I thought they were doing OK,” Sullivan said of the offense Sunday without its usual floor general. “Certainly at that point we were trying to get the ball to Pat. We were able to have him bring it up and then get him off the ball.”
But while Harvey did chalk up a career-high six assists, he didn’t convert a single second-half field goal without Elliott. That might be the most telling stat about the effect of Prasse-Freeman’s absence.
“It takes a scorer away from being able to run off screens like Pat’s so good at doing,” Merchant said of not having Prasse-Freeman on the floor. “It takes away a guy like Elliott finding the big men close to the rim when people do overplay Pat. It does hurt us, but at the same time, Elliott couldn’t avoid those five fouls. Their two guards are tough to handle, and he did everything he could. We were all committing a lot of fouls tonight.”
Still, after BC’s Louis Hinnant missed a pair of foul shots with 2:34 left, Harvard suddenly had a chance to tie. With a three, Harvard could even take the lead, though that’s not how the Crimson was thinking. “Just get a basket,” Sullivan thought. “Anyway we could, just get a basket.”
But the possession was over before it ever really got started. Harvey was dribbling around the perimeter trying to create something and, with Hinnant swarming him, Harvey lost the handle. Hinnant scooped up the loose ball and BC started killing the clock. Bell eventually drew a foul, earning his way to the line, where he shot 14-for-14 Sunday.
It was one possession too many without Prasse-Freeman, who logged only 26 minutes Sunday. On the game’s most important possession, the most important player was the one who was missing, the one who hadn’t scored a point all day.
“You do miss him because he is certainly an expert passer,” Sullivan said of Prasse-Freeman, whose six assists moved him within 10 of the all-time school record and 31 of the Ivy mark. “I don’t think the players thought, ‘Oh, we can’t execute him without him.’ But yeah, we miss him.”
After those four three throws, Harvey didn’t score in the final 4:58 of the game. It doesn’t bode well for your chances of winning a close game when your go-to scorer gets shut out in the closing minutes.
As it was, Harvard was forced to content itself with being competitive.
“We accomplished what we wanted—we put ourselves in position [to win],” Sullivan said. “I think there was doubt in some people’s minds that we could even be in that position.”
Sunday’s game was indeed a moral victory for this Harvard team, which is shaping up much better than expected and should be considered a serious contender in the Ivy League.
“We have the same amount of wins as we had at Christmastime a year ago. [But] it’s been a tougher seven wins than a year ago,” Sullivan said. “Some of our road wins have been good, solid wins. Hopefully it bodes well for us.”
Hopefully. But probably only if Prasse-Freeman is on the floor to take part in it.
—Staff writer Brian E. Fallon can be reached at email@example.com.