Worcester Polytechnic Institute—a Division III program—came into Lavietes Pavilion last night and gave the Harvard men’s basketball team all it could handle for 40 minutes.
After building an early 13-3 lead, the Crimson (6-2) essentially played the Engineers (5-2) evenly throughout the rest of the contest, ultimately winning 69-54 over the visitors.
“I was disappointed in how we played, but I have to give [WPI] credit for putting us in that position,” Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said.
The Crimson built its early lead thanks to some sharp shooting from its backcourt. Junior co-captain Oliver McNally hit two threes from the left wing and sophomore guard Christian Webster nailed a triple of his own in the first five minutes. With a pair of Webster free throws and a long two from junior forward Andrew Van Nest, Harvard built a 10-point advantage in the opening six minutes.
At that point, Amaker inserted his second unit, and the lead began to evaporate. The Crimson committed three turnovers in less than two minutes, and WPI cut the margin to 16-9.
“I wanted to play a lot of guys,” Amaker said. “I was disappointed in those guys during that stretch. We turned it over repeatedly and gave them life.”
Although Amaker sent his starters back in the game, Harvard was not able to recover its rhythm. A steal and a breakaway dunk by Van Nest made the score 30-15, but 15 points would be the biggest lead of the half. Following Van Nest’s jam, a turnover by Curry led to an easy layup for Engineer center Matt Carr, and teammate Ben Etten followed that bucket by burying a wide-open three.
At halftime, the Crimson led 38-25 due largely to its success from deep. Fifteen of Harvard’s 22 shot attempts were three-pointers, of which it converted eight. The Crimson’s leading scorer coming into the game, junior co-captain Keith Wright, scored no points in the opening frame as WPI chose to swarm the center each time he caught the ball. The strategy opened up many of Harvard’s outside looks.
“I thought we had good ball movement,” Amaker said.
At the start of the second half, the Engineers made a run. A three-pointer by guard Jeffrey Robinson and a lay-in by Carr cut the Crimson’s lead to eight points. But Wright responded with a hook shot—his first points of the contest—and McNally reeled off seven straight points for Harvard on four free throws and a trey.
WPI cut the lead to eight once again with 11:02 remaining, but McNally hit a pair of free throws to extended the advantage to double digits. The junior led all scorers on the night with 20 points.
“Jeremy [Lin ’10] left, so a lot of the things he did—scoring, assists, defense—it’s all on everybody’s shoulders,” McNally said. “This game, I just found some good opportunities to score the ball.”
The Crimson was never able to build an advantage greater than 15 points, as Robinson and Engineer guard Jaimie Shannon had an answer for each Harvard surge. The duo combined for 27 points, eight assists, and four rebounds on the night.
“I thought they played a very scrappy, hard-nosed game,” Amaker said of WPI. “They have a very good program, a very good culture of winning.”
Ultimately, Harvard was able to use solid free throw shooting to prevent the upset. The Crimson went 28 of 34 from the line, including 20 of 25 in the second half, en route to prevailing, 69-54.
Harvard ended with four players scoring in double-digits—McNally, Webster, Curry, and Wright with 20, 17, 11, and 10, respectively.
“I thought we tried hard,” Amaker said. “It was no question that we [did not] take anyone lightly or didn’t come to play. Sometimes you don’t play as well as you want, and you give credit to the other team.”
“We didn’t come with the necessary defensive intensity, and that just led to us playing not well in pretty much every facet of the game,” McNally said. “We haven’t played well a couple games in a row…We need to change that going into a really big game [against Boston University] this weekend.”
—Staff writer Timothy J. Walsh can be reached at email@example.com.