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Merchant’s 45 Can’t Save Men’s Basketball

By Rahul Rohatgi, Crimson Staff Writer

It was a night of records Saturday at Lavietes Pavilion, but the record that mattered most—wins and losses—ended up as the worst in several seasons for the Harvard men’s basketball team.

Crimson captain Brady Merchant erupted for a school-high 45 points Saturday night against Brown, but that wasn’t enough to keep Harvard from getting swept to close out the 2002-03 season.

Instead, having lost to Yale on Friday night, the Crimson finished 12-15 overall, with a 4-10 Ivy League record, good for a three-way tie for fifth place.

The final two games for Harvard’s strong senior starting corps—Merchant, point guard Elliott Prasse-Freeman, forward Sam Winter and center Brian Sigafoos—provided some memorable and touching moments, but also a double dose of heartbreak. The Bulldogs (14-13, 8-6 Ivy) used a strong surge in the second half to pull away to a 95-82 victory, while the Bears (17-11, 12-2 Ivy) won a fast-paced game at the free-throw line, 93-80.

Brown 93, Harvard 80

Senior Night at Lavietes featured emotional sequences at the beginning and end of the game, with plenty of drama in between. Facing the league’s second-best team in Brown, whose only conference losses came against NCAA tournament-bound Penn, Harvard took the upper hand in the first half, only to see it snatched away by the Bears’ resilience in the second.

Merchant got off to a quick start on his record-setting night. He hit four three-pointers in the opening five minutes and remained on fire the rest of the first half.

“I came out hitting threes consistently,” Merchant said. “Once you start hitting, you don’t want to stop shooting.”

Prasse-Freeman, who racked up nine assists to tie the school’s single-season record at 207, had no problem finding Merchant, who hit some impressive off-balance three-pointers later in the half.

By the time Merchant drained his final three of the first half to put the Crimson up 34-27, he had outscored the Bears (28-27) by himself.

Merchant stayed hot in the second half, but Brown’s star guards Jason Forte and Earl Hunt rallied the Bears, who took a 44-43 lead two minutes into the second half. From then on, the game would be a series of high-paced runs by both sides.

Brown struck first halfway through the second frame, when it scored seven points in a row to go up 71-64.

Harvard responded with long-range shooting. A three-pointer by Merchant put him at 41 points on the night—tying the school record held by Ralph James ’91—and closed the margin to one point, which sophomore guard Jason Norman erased emphatically with a dunk that put the Crimson ahead 72-71 seconds later.

The Bears, with assists from the referees, then turned the NASCAR race-pace into a Sunday stroll. Brown, which went to the free-throw line 41 times during the game (versus Harvard’s nine attempts), drew fouls on its next six possessions and scored 12 straight points from the charity stripe, taking an 85-76 lead with three minutes remaining. The Crimson never recovered.

Merchant capped off his historic evening with a free throw and a late three.

“It was a fitting exclamation point to his career,” Harvard coach Frank Sullivan said of Merchant’s effort.

With the game out of hand in the final minutes, Sullivan gave his seniors the opportunity to leave the court to applause from the appreciative fans. Prasse-Freeman, who started every game he played in four years, and Winter left to standing ovations.

When Merchant’s time was up and his record-setting night was announced, the captain cried upon returning to the bench and embracing his teammates. Meanwhile, Harvard fans chanted “Brady! Brady!” as he slowly left the court.

“It was an emotional moment,” Merchant said. “It’s been the best four years of my life.”

Yale 95, Harvard 82

The Bulldogs overpowered the Harvard defense, winning their sixth straight game against the Crimson convincingly, 95-82, Friday night.

In a rivalry game covered nationally by the YES cable network, Norman and freshman center Brian Cusworth had career nights. Norman shot 8-of-11, including three three-pointers, to finish with a career-high 20 points. Cusworth had 16 points in only 19 minutes of action.

But the story of the evening was Yale guard Chris Leanza, who exploded for 19 first-half points and was unguardable for long stretches. He scored half of the Bulldogs’ points while Yale built a 38-30 halftime lead.

The Bulldogs came out of the break strong as well, scoring nine points in three minutes to extend their advantage to 13.

“Our first three or four possessions [of the second half] were abysmal,” Sullivan said.

Harvard did its best to chip away at the lead but was unable to come any closer than eight points for most of the half.

Yale’s best player, guard Edwin Draughan, broke out of a first-half slump with 11 second-half points, and—like Brown the next night—the Bulldogs used the free-throw line to their advantage.

After a relatively clean first half that saw Yale go to the line only three times while the Crimson was shut out, the Bulldogs made 28 second-half trips against Harvard’s nine. With Yale shooting better from behind the arc, the trips to the line were a killer for Harvard.

“We were unable to generate any stops,” Sullivan said. “We can’t play a 90-point game against Yale.”

An inspired late run by the Crimson made Yale coach James Jones look foolish, but it wasn’t enough for Harvard to reclaim the lead. With nearly three minutes remaining and a 17-point advantage, Jones pulled his starters. Almost immediately, the Crimson began nailing three-pointers while the Bulldog bench players flubbed possessions. Harvard pulled to within 89-82 with a minute left before Yale’s regulars came back to finish the Crimson off.

Harvard’s sub-.500 finish was its first in three years, and its sub-.500 Ivy record came after four identical 7-7 finishes. The 4-10 conference record also ties the 1994-95 mark as the second-worst of Sullivan’s 12-year tenure. The Crimson’s only league wins came via sweeps of Ivy doormats Dartmouth and Columbia.

Sullivan located the turning point of the season at the critical four-game road swing right after January exams, when Harvard could not beat the league’s top teams on the road and the Crimson’s top player, senior guard Pat Harvey, was declared academically ineligible.

“Our confidence may have been shaken. The team weathered it pretty well,” Sullivan said of that crucial juncture. “And if anything, they’re guilty of trying too hard.”

—Staff writer Rahul Rohatgi can be reached at rohatgi@fas.harvard.edu.

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