Sophomore center Kenyatta Smith had the performance of his career for the Harvard men’s basketball team this weekend.
By leading the Crimson to two victories over Penn and Princeton at Lavietes Pavilion, Smith helped widen Harvard’s advantage in the Ivy League standings and the race for an automatic NCAA tournament bid that comes along with an Ancient Eight title. With the win against the second-place Tigers, Harvard now has a 1.5 game lead in conference play, which becomes increasingly important as the madness of March approaches.
Until last weekend, Smith had not lived up to his high school expectations. The three-star prospect was the Crimson’s highest rated recruit in his class and according to Scout.com was the nation’s No. 13 ranked center coming out of Flintridge Prep School in La Canada, Calif. But during his freshman season, he averaged just 2.1 minutes per game and only saw action in eight games.
So far this season, he has enjoyed more playing time, averaging 12.4 minutes per game in 20 games. Even with the increase in playing time, Smith has only started seven times, with Harvard coach Tommy Amaker using him as a post presence off the bench in the past 15 games.
But Friday was different, as the sophomore broke out in historic fashion with one of the best games Harvard has seen all season. Against Penn, Smith shattered the Crimson’s all-time blocks record of seven—which had stood since 1977—when he turned away 10 shots in 31 minutes of play. As well as dominating on the defensive end, he put up a career-high 20 points, going eight for nine from the field in an efficient offensive performance.
Adding to his career night, Smith had nine rebounds—just one board shy of a triple-double, an especially elusive statistical achievement for a center. The sophomore led both teams in rebounds and blocks on Friday night and was second only to sophomore forward Wesley Saunders in points.
Friday night, Smith was tapped to start for the first time since the Crimson’s loss at the hands of Vermont on Nov. 27.
“I was a little nervous, [having] not started since the beginning of the season,” said Smith after the contest against Penn. “But I just...tried to calm myself down and just focus on playing my game.”
Smith’s focus paid off, as he topped his previous career highs in points, blocks, and rebounds. Throughout the season, Harvard has struggled to find a strong presence inside the paint, which Amaker highlighted as one the factors contributing to Smith’s starts this weekend.
“We have to have a post presence...to be able to put the ball inside at some point, and [Smith is] our best option when it comes to that,” said Amaker following Friday night’s game. “I was incredibly impressed with how he handled it tonight.”
After his performance the night before, Smith found himself in the starting lineup again against the Tigers on Saturday.
In the Crimson’s biggest conference matchup so far this season, the center helped Harvard to a 12-point victory over its Ivy League rival and led the game with seven rebounds and six blocks. Finishing alongside sophomore forward Steve Mondou-Missi with a team-high 14 points, Smith took a total of nine shots—five from the field and four from the line—and sunk them all. Despite playing only 20 minutes, Smith was responsible for each of the Crimson’s six blocked shots.
The victory over the Tigers gave Harvard a valuable edge in the conference standings, and his performance over the weekend earned Smith his first career nod as Ivy League Player of the Week. On the weekend, the sophomore amassed 34 points, 17 blocks, and 16 rebounds. He went 13 for 14 from the field and eight of nine from the line in 51 minutes of play—more than he had played in his last six games combined.
Smith is now second in the Ivy League in blocks per game, despite having played less than half as many minutes as Brown’s league-leading freshman forward Cedric Kuakumensah.
With six Ivy League games left to play for the Crimson—including a rematch against Princeton on the Tigers’ home court—Harvard will likely look to Smith for a continued inside presence as it works towards a title and a tournament bid.
“There’s a lot of basketball still to be played,” said Amaker over the weekend. “Kenyatta was [given] an opportunity and embraced it.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
CORRECTION: Feb. 20, 2013
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the location of Sophomore center Kenyatta Smith's secondary school, Flintridge Prep School. In fact, the school is located in La Canada, Calif., not Brea, Calif.