Merchant put on a blistering performance in Levien Gymnasium against Columbia Saturday night, lighting up the Lions (2-23, 0-12 Ivy) for a career-high 27 points. His outburst in the second half—when he scored 15 consecutive Crimson points—provided the spark the team needed to finally take control of a back-and-forth contest.
“It didn’t hit me until after the game,” Merchant said. “I saw I had 27 and I was shocked. You just don’t realize it when you’re in a close game.”
One night earlier at Cornell, Harvard’s offensive disappearance in the waning moments of the game and an anemic showing from the free-throw line led to a 68-63 loss to the Big Red (9-16, 4-8). The win over Columbia means the Crimson (12-13, 4-8) can still post its third straight winning season.
“That’s what we have left to work for,” Merchant said. “It’s a do-or-die situation. It would be devastating to leave here after an under-.500 season.”
Harvard must win its final two contests against Yale and Brown at Lavietes Pavilion this weekend to finish over .500.
Harvard 66, Columbia 63
The Crimson built a sizeable second-half lead for the second night in a row, but unlike on Friday night, Harvard did exactly what was necessary down the stretch, enabling the Crimson to hold off a Columbia team desperate for its first Ivy victory. Lions forward Dragutin Kravic missed a three-pointer from the right wing with just two seconds remaining that would have pulled Columbia even.
With just over a minute left, Lions forward Marco McCottry had hit a three-pointer to bring Columbia within two, 63-61. The Lions quickly got the ball back on a Harvard turnover, but Columbia center Chris Wiedemann couldn’t handle an entry pass, forcing the Lions to start fouling.
Crimson senior forward Sam Winter converted both of his one-and-one opportunities and sophomore guard David Giovacchini made the first of his in the final 30 seconds of play to stave off the charging Lions.
When Columbia took the lead, 35-34, early in the second half, Merchant stepped up and ignited the offense. He scored the next 15 Harvard points to put the team ahead 49-40, a lead it would never relinquish. “I was looking to get the win,” Merchant said. “We had been through this same situation so many times. I really didn’t care who was hitting the shots.” Giovacchini turned in a strong performance off the bench, scoring six big points down the stretch. “[The younger players] are really setting themselves up well for next year,” Merchant said. “Giovacchini had a great game defensively, and hit that huge free throw for us.” Harvard struggled in the first half, battling from behind almost throughout. The Crimson had little offensive rhythm, as its best stretch was a 7-1 run late in the frame to push it past the Lions, 29-28, going into the locker room. Harvard shot 33 percent from the field in the first half, but performed much better in the second, when it shot at a 48-percent clip. On the game, the Crimson converted 73 percent of its opportunities from the free-throw line, much improved from the night before.
Cornell 68, Harvard 63
The Crimson maintained a lead throughout most of the game, but it took Cornell’s Ka’Ron Barnes and Cody Toppert only three minutes to topple it. Harvard furiously tried to pull even in the final minute, but each of its attempts came up short.
With the Crimson trailing 65-63, Winter stepped to the charity stripe facing a one-and-one situation and missed the front end.
Harvard had another chance with less than 30 seconds to go, trailing 66-63. Yet, despite a flurry of activity that included a missed Winter three-pointer, a missed shot by freshman center Brian Cusworth and a missed three-pointer by sophomore guard Kevin Rogus, the Big Red was able to survive. Cornell guard David Lisle grabbed the rebound off Rogus’ shot, ending Harvard’s hopes. “The free-throw shooting might have been the single biggest reason we lost,” Merchant said. “It wasn’t a lack of concentration. It was just something that happened.” Midway through the second half, the Crimson had pushed its lead to double-digits at 51-41. But that’s when Cornell came alive, going on a 13-2 run sparked by Toppert and Barnes. Merchant answered with a three-pointer to put Harvard back on top, 56-54, but the momentum had already shifted. The Crimson could muster only a single basket in the final 4:25 as the Big Red pulled away. The first half belonged to Harvard, and it seemed a blowout was in the cards. After Cornell scored the opening five points of the game, the Crimson responded with a 24-6 run, building a 13-point lead. Harvard was able to maintain a double-digit lead until Toppert made a late layup to close the halftime gap to nine, 35-26.
The youthful bench made a large contribution to the offensive effort in the first half as Giovacchini had five points, Rogus tallied six and Cusworth scored four. With 6:09 left in the first half, Winter took a charge from Barnes, who was called for his third foul. But Harvard was unable to capitalize, as Barnes played the rest of the first and most of the second half foul-free, picking up his fourth with just 4:25 remaining in the game. The Crimson was plagued by a poor performance from the free-throw line. Harvard shot just 37 percent from the charity stripe on the game.
Winter led the team with 17 points, and Cusworth registered a double-double with 10 points and 10 rebounds.