While most of the country spent Black Friday recovering from food comas, the Harvard men’s basketball team had to rally from a hangover of its own after suffering an 18-point loss to St. Mary’s on Turkey Day. With starters Corey Johnson and Seth Towns out with an illness, the Crimson rode the sophomore trio of Bryce Aiken, Robert Baker, and Chris Lewis to a 77-71 victory over St. Joseph’s on the second day of the Wooden Legacy in Fullerton, Calif. The win snapped a three-game losing streak for Harvard (3-3) and set up a showdown with host Cal State Fullerton for Sunday night.
“It's easy in a tournament to get up and be excited and enthusiastic to play in a game in the semifinals when you advance in a tournament,” Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said. “It's very difficult when you have a tough loss. I thought both teams played with a lot of heart today, it showed how much we both wanted to win and how hard we competed.”
Lewis kicked off the scoring, converting a hook shot in the lane and never looked back. The sophomore was dominant and efficient all game, making nine of his 12 field goal attempts and three of his four free throws. The Hawks (2-3) tried to give the Crimson big man different looks defensively but none was particularly successful. The Alpharetta, Ga., native finished the day with 21 points and nine rebounds, a performance that bore similarities to last season’s matchup with Boston College, in which Amaker rode his then-freshman’s 22 points to a eight-point road win.
"It wasn't hard to get their attention, we have tremendous kids, I'm blown away by their character and so it wasn't difficult at all,” Amaker said. “There was some things that needed to be said and how we need to play better and compete harder for 40 minutes and I thought they embraced that. I thought they did it themselves in terms of talking amongst themselves and wanting to do better.”
A Taylor Funk three got St. Joseph’s to within one with 9:40 to play but a 15-6 run over the next eight-plus minutes proved to be the difference for the Crimson. Aiken, Baker, and Lewis scored all but one of Harvard’s final 23 points to down the pesky Hawks.
"Just staying confident even though I shot horribly from the three in this tournament so far but it's alright, you just stick with it and like coach always preaches, short memory, you have to move on to the next play,” Aiken said. “But offensively, like I said, coach and my teammates they trust me a lot and it's up to me to produce for our team."
Following a slow start on Thursday, the Crimson made sure to flip the script on Friday afternoon. After falling behind 3-2 in the opening minutes of play, Harvard reeled off seven straight points and 16 of the next 19. Baker followed the stretch with an exclamation point, slamming down a powerful dunk while being fouled to push the lead to 14 with 10:33 to play in the first half.
“I was very pleased with the effort that our kids brought and I thought the opening few minutes of the game set the tone for us and we really tried to prepare for that,” Amaker said.
Despite bursts from the Crimson throughout the afternoon, St. Joseph’s refused to go away. Harvard led by as many as 14 in the first half but the lead stood at just six when halftime arrived.
Aiken and Lewis, two of the Crimson’s top three scorers entering the game, combined for 15 first half points. The duo was aided early on by Baker and Southern California native Henry Welsh, who chipped in six points on three-for-three shooting off the bench.
Baker continued to ride the wave into the second half. The Hawks had few answers for the jump shooting big man. The Woodstock, Ga., native finished with a career-high 14 points and 11 rebounds in his coming-out party. He turned the ball over just twice on a day in which his team only had 11 giveaways.
“Everybody just had to step up,” Baker said. “With Seth being out, I didn't want to do too much because nobody can replace what Seth does on this team, nobody in the country I don't think. I just wanted to step in and do my job, play my role and everything will take care of itself. I just had to do a better job of sticking to what I do best."
St. Joseph’s got to within one four times early in the second half but was unable to hold a lead after intermission. Even though the Hawks got to the line 31 times, Harvard was able to hold them to just 36.1 percent shooting from the field, the lowest mark for a Crimson opponent this season. Not to be outdone, Aiken got to the line 12 times himself, leading Harvard on a day when it took 25 free throw tries.
"Honestly, I just took what the defense gave me today,” Aiken said. “The coaches and the rest of my teammates do a terrific job of putting me in a position to be successful and I think I capitalized on the opportunities that were there today.”