Junior center Brian Cusworth scored 17 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in the Crimson’s 65-57 win over the Catamounts.
While all of Harvard’s attention was focused on the football game in New Haven, the Crimson men’s basketball team opened its season with a resounding salvo of its own on Saturday, knocking off three-time defending America East champion Vermont 65-57 at Lavietes Pavilion.
Harvard (1-0) handed Vermont a loss in the Catamounts’ first action since last year’s NCAA tournament, where they pulled off a stunning overtime defeat of No. 4 seed Syracuse in the first round. The win was the first season-opening victory for the Crimson since 2002, the rookie year of the current crop of seniors.
“Who has more momentum going into the season than a team like Vermont?” Crimson coach Frank Sullivan said. “Even though they’ve got new players and a new coach, I think there’s still a feeling about Vermont basketball. This is a very good way to start the season.”
Harvard nearly let the victory escape down the stretch. Despite trailing by as many as 11 points in the second half, the Catamounts fought back on the strength of their perimeter shooting, tying the game at 50 with 6:21 to play on forward Ryan Schneider’s three-pointer. Harvard gained back some breathing room on a trifecta by senior forward Zach Martin, but with 2:03 left, Schneider—who finished with a game-high 19 points—hit another three to give Vermont a 57-56 lead, its first advantage since late in the first half.
With the numerous Vermont fans who made the trip to Cambridge screaming their approval, junior guard Jim Goffredo was able to answer. Just 2-of-7 from downtown at that point in the game, Goffredo connected when it counted, knocking down a trey from the corner to give Harvard the lead back for good.
“Jimmy and Zach...made big shots at the right time,” Sullivan said.
“Those guys stepped up and hit some crucial shots for us,” junior center Brian Cusworth added.
With the Crimson clinging to a slim lead, Cusworth blocked forward Timothy McCrory’s bid to tie the score, dumped in a reverse layup on the offensive end to make it 61-57, and rebounded Schneider’s three-point misfire with 45 seconds remaining, forcing the Catamounts to begin fouling. Cusworth, who finished with a team-high 17 points, was dominant on the defensive end, rejecting four shots—all in the second half—to go along with his 10 rebounds and two steals.
“We had some timely blocks—our defense kept us in the game,” Sullivan said. “We got over the hump because of [the defense].”
Harvard’s defense was stifling in the second half, limiting the Catamounts to eight field goals and 25.8 percent shooting. Guard Mike Trimboli, who scored 12 points on 5-of-7 shooting in the initial period, was limited to five points after the break. Forward Martin Klimes, the only returning starter from last year’s tourney squad, scored five points on 1-of-10 shooting for the game, mainly due to the strong defense of captain Matt Stehle, who racked up 11 rebounds and three steals, both game-highs, to go along with his nine points.
“We knew that [Klimes] was a very tough competitor and somebody that we had to focus on,” Cusworth said. “I think that Matt did an awesome job in stepping up and shutting him down.”
While the Crimson was able to stymie the Vermont attack, Harvard was having its own problems with the Catamounts’ zone defense. After watching Cusworth have his way inside against Klimes and center Chris Holm, Vermont effectively switched up its look.
“When going one-on-one, coach just told me to go to work, and I felt really confident,” Cusworth said. “But Vermont went to their zone defense and really collapsed inside.”
That opened up the outside, and the team’s perimeter players stepped up. Goffredo scored 15 points, and freshman guard Drew Housman contributed 13. Thrust into the starting role at point guard, Housman ran the offense with poise in his first collegiate game, and was able to penetrate the Vermont defense to reach the basket. He hit all eight of his free throw attempts, including four in the game’s final 40 seconds that clinched the victory.
“I was really nervous at the beginning, but once it got going, and I realized I can play with these guys, then I sort of got into a rhythm,” Housman said.
The Crimson jumped out to an early 6-0 lead on two layups from Goffredo and a pair of Housman free throws, but the shooting of the freshman Trimboli helped Vermont take a 24-20 lead midway through the period. Harvard fought back to grab a 33-31 advantage at the break, then got four straight points from Cusworth to open the second half, keying a 17-8 run that gave the Crimson its largest lead at 50-39. Schneider brought the Catamounts back with four second-half threes, but the end of the game belonged solely to Harvard, which handed coach Mike Lonergan a loss in his first game leading Vermont.
“It’s a big statement, definitely,” Housman said. “It’s just the confidence—they went to the NCAA tournament last year. The fact that we know we can play at that level is really going to help us.”
—Staff writer Caleb W. Peiffer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.