On a night when most of the Ivy basketball world was looking ahead to Saturday, the Harvard men’s basketball team made sure it took care of business at home on Friday night first.
The Crimson (14-7, 6-1 Ivy) cruised to an easy victory over Penn (5-18, 2-4) at Lavietes Pavilion—its first stress-free win of conference play thus far—to set up a much-anticipated contest against Princeton on Saturday that will place one of those two teams alone atop Ivy standings midway through the conference season.
To get to that point unscathed, Harvard was led by an unlikely hero. Making his first start since a Nov. 27 loss to Vermont, sophomore center Kenyatta Smith turned in a career night, registering 20 points, 10 blocks—a program record—and nine rebounds.
“I was a little nervous, having not started since the beginning of the season,” Smith said. “Ever since [finding out], I’ve just been trying to calm myself down, just focus on playing my game.”
After Smith only registered an average of 7.5 minutes in the 15 contests between his November benching and Friday’s contest, Amaker—hoping for more size against the Quakers’ taller big men—surprisingly turned to his largest interior presence to replace the smaller Jonah Travis at the five.
“I mentioned to Jonah that we weren’t down on him,” Amaker said. “We just felt this was a moment we needed to make an adjustment and see where it would take us.”
What the coach never could have expected was that his decision would result in the performance turned in by Smith, who was seven-of-eight from the field in 31 minutes.
“He was really brilliant when it came to making shots,” Amaker said. “Inside-out is how we always want to play, and we haven’t been able to do that as well [this season].... Hopefully Kenyatta’s going to be the answer for that as we continue to move forward.”
Along with sophomore wing Wesley Saunders—who had a game-high 23 points Friday—Smith was the significant piece of Amaker’s recruiting class of 2015. Named the 13th best center in the country by Rivals, Smith chose the Crimson over fellow finalists Vanderbilt and Penn.
After struggling to get off the bench behind Kyle Casey and Keith Wright ’12 as a rookie and losing his starting job early this season, it took a match-up with the Quakers, a team he turned down, for Smith to finally be the player Amaker hoped he could be.
“I said to him, ‘This is why you’re here,’” Amaker said. “It was time for him step forward in this program. We needed him to give us what we recruited him to do.”
“[Amaker] had a lot of faith in me,” Smith added. “He told me he was counting on me and I didn’t want to let him down. I didn’t want to let the team down.”
With 1:59 left in the blowout, the coach decided to pull his starters, including his center, who exited just shy of a triple-double.
“You have to have a post presence,” Amaker said. “He’s our best option when it comes to that, and I was incredibly impressed with the way he handled it tonight.”