Kenyatta Smith had been waiting 80 days for another opportunity.
That’s how long it had been since the Harvard sophomore was pulled from the starting lineup following the men’s basketball team’s 85-78 loss to Vermont, a game in which he had committed three turnovers and three fouls.
Smith spent most of the Crimson’s next 15 games watching from the bench, as Harvard went 11-4 with sophomore Jonah Travis starting at center.
But following the Crimson’s 78-63 loss at Columbia last Saturday, Harvard coach Tommy Amaker decided to give Smith another chance. At Wednesday’s practice, Amaker informed the team that Smith would replace Travis in the lineup for the Crimson’s Friday night matchup against Penn.
“I was a little nervous,” Smith said of his reaction when he learned of Amaker’s decision. “I didn’t want to let [Amaker] down. He had a lot of faith in me. He told me that he was counting on me. I didn’t want to let him down. I didn’t want to let my team down.”
Smith certainly didn’t do that.
In an historic night, the 6’8” center posted 20 points, nine rebounds, and 10 blocks—all career highs and the latter a program record. The performance spurred the Crimson (15-7, 7-1 Ivy) to a 73-54 victory over Penn (6-18, 3-4), Harvard’s most comfortable conference win of the season.
“I made the decision to go with [Smith] because we needed an inside, interior presence for scoring and certainly his rebounding ability,” Amaker said. “I never anticipated him getting 10 blocks, but we need him to protect our rim.”
Thanks in large part to Smith’s interior presence, Penn struggled to get into a rhythm offensively, scoring just 54 points on 34.9 percent shooting—its third lowest clip of the season.
Quakers guards Miles Cartwright and Tony Hicks, who entered the contest averaging 14 and 12 points per game in Ivy League play, respectively, were limited to just 15 combined points on five-of-21 shooting from the field.
“I was very pleased with our defense,” Amaker said. “I thought we played an exceptional game defensively in pretty much both halves, which is something we haven’t really done all year. I thought we had great discipline, great focus.”
On the other side of the court, the Crimson was efficient on offense, connecting on 52.3 percent of its shots from the floor and five-of-13 from deep.
Coming off a career-high 27-point performance in last Saturday’s loss at Columbia, sophomore Wesley Saunders continued to fill the basket on Friday. The 6’5” wing posted 17 first-half points and finished with 23, a game high.
“Obviously Wesley was very efficient with how he played,” said Amaker of the sophomore, who shot seven-of-12 from the field and got to the charity stripe 11 times.
With the score knotted at 9-9 early in the first half, Saunders sparked a 14-4 Harvard run, knocking down a triple from the left wing off a pass from co-captain Christian Webster.