STORRS, Conn.—With 34 seconds to play at Gampel Pavilion on Wednesday night, Crimson senior Laurent Rivard drilled a three and hit the and-one to pull the Harvard men’s basketball team within four points of Connecticut, 55-51. At the other end of the court, however, Huskies guards Ryan Boatright and Shabazz Napier went 4-2 in the final moments of the contest to extend the Huskies (12-3, 0-2 American) lead over the Crimson (13-2).
Rivard and sophomore guard Siyani Chambers countered with a lay-up apiece each to close the gap to three, and with nine seconds to play, a travel by Connecticut forward Niels Giffey gave the Crimson a chance to do what it has not since Dec. 1972 – beat the talented Huskies.
Yet Chambers and co-captain Brandyn Curry found themselves boxed in by Connecticut’s lengthy defenders, unable to make a play. Curry gave up the ball with two seconds on the clock, and Harvard found itself taking its first loss of 2014, 61-56.
“Coach told me to go out there and make a play,” Chambers said. “At the end there we had created some confusion, and Brandyn unfortunately slipped and threw it up and lost control of the ball.”
Notably absent was junior guard Wesley Saunders, the leading scorer for the Crimson who nabbed a team-high 14 points during last season’s outing in Storrs, and sat on the bench due to injury.
“Coach’s motto is ‘next person up’,” Chambers said. “Wesley went down; we were just going to do as a team and somebody’s going to step up and play their role that they have….. We handled [Saunders’ absence] really well.”
In his place, Chambers and Curry controlled the shallow backcourt and each played all but two minutes of the game. Curry, who also has dealt with injury this season, played under 20 minutes in his past three games – the first the senior had played in over a month.
“Brandyn has worked himself back to being able to play extended minutes,” Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said. “I’m sure he got tired, not just because of the minutes but because of the players that these guys had to guard out there. Those two guards [Boatright and Napier] are electic and dynamic, and they’re a handful.”
Chambers, who ran the floor for the entire second half despite having a noticeable limp at times, led all scorers with 21 points. He converted five of his seven three-point attempts, including an extra-long trey that snipped the Huskies lead to two with just over three minutes remaining in the game.
But besides Chambers’ efficiency from deep, the Crimson watched three after three rim out. The team went 9-for-22 overall in the game.
“We certainly felt that we were going to have opportunities to get threes,” Amaker said. “Not all the threes…were great shots. The way I think about it right now is that we were going to take our shots when we have them.”
Shooting proved to be the weakness for a Saunders-less Crimson against a team capable of running a smothering defense. Harvard shot at 36 percent through the game, markedly under their season average, and at just 27 percent during the final 20 minutes. It was perhaps fatigue, a loss of momemtum, and the deafening cries of a home crowd that proved lethal to Harvard in the end.
Yet the first half showed glimmers of hope that a Crimson squad with Saunders relegated to the bench could, in fact, take down a team that just recently ended a run of nine consecutive weeks in the AP Top 25.
Powered by the play of veteran Curry, who doled out six of the team’s 12 assists during the tilt, and the efficient shooting of Chambers, it was Harvard who led heading into the locker room, 31-26.
As the Crimson confronted the play of Connecticut’s forward’s, most of who are at or within inches of seven feet tall, the Crimson’s big men became even more important.
Driving the interior presence senior was Kyle Casey, who had nine points on the night, eight of which came during the first 20 minutes, as well as a game-high nine defensive rebounds. Sophomore Agunwa Okolie also proved formidable on the glass with six total boards.
Despite occasional mismatches in size, Harvard found itself at the good end of the turnover stick, driving the Huskies to commit 11 in the opening frame, despite the team having a season average of just nine per game. With those increased opportunities at possessions came more chances at baskets, and a steadier rhythm for the Crimson.
Momentum was a key to Harvard’s success in the first stanza, with a 12-0 run late in the half giving the Crimson its first lead since the opening minute of the game. Yet rhythm also proved lethal to Harvard, as the Huskies rattled off runs of 7-0 at points of each frame, and controlled the speed as they took a lead they would never relinquish early in the second half.
The contest is the last for Harvard before it opens its Ivy season against Dartmouth on Saturday.
—Staff writer Cordelia F. Mendez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @CrimsonCordelia.