There were a series of indelible images from the Harvard men’s basketball team’s 69-57 win over Princeton on Saturday. It was freshman point guard Siyani Chambers diving on the floor to rescue a loose ball, skidding so fast across the hardwood he nearly ran into the scorer’s table. It was Laurent Rivard pivoting and shooting, all in one motion, to drain a three right before the half to stretch a one-point lead to a four-point advantage. It was sophomore forward Kenyatta Smith swatting two of Tiger senior forward Ian Hummer’s shots into the second row. It was sophomore forward Steve Moundou-Missi slamming home a last-second dunk to cap off the night.
The Crimson plays its best against the best competition. Against likely tournament competition Saint Mary’s, only a late pair of free throws held back Harvard from coming up with a last-second win in a hostile road environment. Against Boston College and Cal, the Crimson won by 16 and five, respectively, on the road against Big Six programs. Until Chambers fouled out against current No. 22 Memphis, Harvard was tied 50-50 with Josh Pastner’s talented squad. Saturday against Princeton was no different.
Even with sophomore wing Wesley Saunders submitting a poor shooting effort and combining with Chambers to go six-of-23 from the floor, the team’s balanced attack netted a win. Five players scored in double digits, and a sixth—co-captain and forward Christian Webster—came up with two clutch threes at crucial moments. But the team’s overall balanced performance was not the story of the weekend.
Smith, with 16 blocks, 16 rebounds, and 34 points in two games, submitted the 24 hours of his life in spectacular efforts against Penn and the Tigers. Starting against the Quakers for the first time in 12 games, Smith was a Ricky Davis—throwing the ball off the backboard to get yourself that last rebound—away from a triple-double on Friday night. Despite being sidelined with early foul trouble against Princeton, Smith didn’t miss a shot on the night, making all nine—four from the free throw line—that he took.
When Crimson coach Tommy Amaker plays Smith and Moundou-Missi together, as he did for long stretches against the Tigers, Harvard brings a different look.
Moundou-Missi showed off his range with two jumpers from just inside the three-point line Saturday and can provide the spacing the Crimson loses by subbing out Webster or junior co-captain Laurent Rivard. Inside, Smith has been the model of efficiency for Harvard. He missed just two shots on 20 total attempts—field goals and free throws—over the weekend and has shot fifty percent or better in all but three Crimson games. His jump hook, possibly his only yet devastatingly effective inside move, is a thing of beauty.
Smith has given Harvard three forward-centers to play at the five, and the increased flexibility has allowed Amaker more lineup possibilities. Sophomore forward Jonah Travis, who has started 14 games for the Crimson this year, came off the bench for the second game in a row Saturday and gives the team seven starter-quality players in the rotation. Smith’s shot blocking ability also gives the team what it needed most—interior defense.
Much like what Saunders can do on the perimeter, Smith boasts long arms that he can use to reach balls that Travis and Moundou-Missi cannot.
In addition to his long reach, the sophomore rarely fouls—he has hit three fouls only twice this season and accumulated four fouls in 51 minutes this weekend—and provides a deterrent for guards trying to penetrate the heart of the team’s defense. This allows Saunders and Chambers to be more aggressive on the defensive end and close out on shooters, knowing that they have backup. This showed against Princeton, the best three-point shooting team in the Ivy League. The Tigers shot one-for-six against Harvard when Smith manned the middle in the second half.
The Crimson submitted easily its best two performances of the Ivy League season against Penn and Princeton, and Smith was the biggest reason why. For the team to realize its preseason goals, it likely will need to win out to take home the Ancient Eight title. With Smith swatting shots on the interior, and with the Tigers now a game-and-a-half back of Harvard with five of its next seven on the road, the chances of that look as good as they ever have.
—Staff writer David Freed can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @crimsondpfreed.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
CORRECTION: Feb. 20, 2013
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the margin by which the Harvard men's basketball team beat Boston College in their latest contest on Dec. 4, 2012. In fact, Harvard won by a margin of victory of 16 points, 79-63, not by a margin of 25.