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NEW YORK, N.Y.—A squad vaunted for its ability to rain down three pointers and set up highlight reel dunks, Harvard relied on neither weapon against Columbia Saturday night. Instead it was primarily the team’s stingy defense that propelled the Crimson to a 61-42 victory over the Lions in front of a crowd of 2,616 at Levien Gymnasium.
Harvard set the tone from the opening tip, picking up a block on Columbia’s first offensive possession of the night and going on to hold its hosts to just five points in the game’s first 10 minutes. Whether on open looks or closely contested opportunities, the Lions had little luck from the field, where they converted just one of their first 14 field goal attempts during the opening half and only one three pointer on the night.
The most critical defensive task for the Crimson was handling its opponent’s perimeter leaders: junior Noruwa Agho—the Ivy League’s top scorer—and sophomore Brian Barbour.
The pair attacked in a number of ways, coming off screens to either pull up for floaters or go up at the hoop, not to mention posting up down low. While Barbour’s speed and Agho’s athleticism allowed each to create space to work, Harvard recovered on the interior to challenge shots and prevent easy finishes.
Add on to that a generally cold shooting night for both, and by game’s end the two had combined for 15 points—about half of their combined average of 29—and missed 14 of the 18 shots they took from the field.
“One thing we talked about was trying to stay in front without fouling,” sophomore guard Brandyn Curry said. “They wanted to get in the lane; they’re crafty with the dribble...they also get to the free throw line a lot.”
Given the assignment of defending Agho was sophomore wing Christian Webster, who was helped by physical rookies Laurent Rivard and Matt Brown off the bench.
Coming in averaging 14 points a game—good for sixth in the league—Webster’s efforts on the defense may have taken a toll on his play on the other end of the floor, as he came away with zero points for just the second time in his collegiate career. His work did not go unnoticed, though.
“I thought Christian Webster, in particular, sacrificed a lot offensively for us, to give of himself, to guard [Agho],” Crimson coach Tommy Amaker said. “He’s a very, very difficult kid to guard. … He can shoot it off the catch; he’s strong; he can put it down and get to the mid-range.”
A direct result of Columbia’s poor shooting was Harvard’s tremendous rebounding advantage. Despite the fact that Columbia had entered Saturday’s matchup No. 39 in the country in rebounding margin—leading opponents by an average of 4.7 per game—the Crimson dominated its league rival on the glass, picking up 36 to Columbia’s 18.
The performance represented a turnaround from the previous night’s contest at Cornell, when the Harvard was out-rebounded, 32-29, and gave up 15 offensive boards to a Big Red team boasting modest interior talent.
“We weren’t pleased with our effort on the glass [against Cornell],” Amaker said. “If we were going to have a chance to play well and to win this evening, we needed to hold our ground on the glass.”
Sophomore Kyle Casey and junior co-captain Keith Wright led the renewed charge, combining for 21 rebounds—three more than the opposing team’s total. In the process, Wright picked up his 11th double-double of the year.
The Crimson frontcourt’s stellar night was aided by the absence of two Columbia big men, Mark Cisco and John Daniels, who each missed the game due to injury. Cisco had fallen hard on his knee and head the night before against Dartmouth.
While Harvard’s offensive balance was on full display—four Crimson starters reached double digits—also apparent was a problem that has haunted the team all year: turnovers.
A tenacious Columbia defense forced nine Harvard turnovers in the first half, leading to the only easy buckets for the home squad all night.
Apart from the usual assortment of traveling violations and offensive fouls, the Crimson also mishandled passes and made dangerous forays into traffic, mistakes that allowed the Lions to remain in contention throughout the first half.
After a long three by junior co-captain Oliver McNally gave Harvard a 13-point lead with 2:19 remaining, three consecutive Crimson turnovers paved the way for Columbia to head into halftime trailing by nine.
All in all, a night after coughing it up only 10 times against the Big Red, Harvard gave it away 15 times, which led to 13 Lions points.
“You give them credit,” Amaker said. “They scrapped and clawed, and they played hard, and they knocked it off of us. They made us turn it over.”
—Staff writer Dennis J. Zheng can be reached at email@example.com.
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