A year after handing the Harvard men’s basketball team a 15-point drubbing at home, Florida Atlantic looked poised to do the same at Lavietes Pavilion early Thursday night. Behind five points from guard Justin Massey, the Owls jumped out to an 11-4 lead at the 14:37 mark in the first half.
Then their side of the scoreboard stopped working.
Harvard (2-1) responded to the initial outburst by shutting out the Florida Atlantic (2-2) offense for seven consecutive minutes as part of a 28-2 run that put the team up 19. From there, the lead never dropped below 13 in a 71-49 victory. Senior wing Wesley Saunders led the team with 19 points and six assists, making seven of 11 shots from the field and all five of his free throws.
“This entire game was about coming up strong from the start,” co-captain Steve Moundou-Missi said. “We did that today and we kept it going with our bench. It was a team effort today and we did a good job.”
After getting beat at the rim time after time against Holy Cross on Sunday, Harvard locked down the restricted area against the Owls. The Crimson had eight blocks for the game, holding the Owls to just 36.8 percent shooting from the floor and outrebounding Florida Atlantic by 14. Junior Evan Cummins, who barely missed a double-double with nine points and 10 rebounds, led the effort inside as Harvard grabbed eight offensive rebounds.
“I thought our defense was phenomenal in the first half,” Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said. “That let us get out in transition when we got a defensive rebound. That’s fun basketball, and for our kids, that’s our brand and our style. I thought throughout the game, and especially in the first half, that gave us the lead and allowed us to play from ahead.”
After turning the ball over 24 times in a 58-57 loss to the Crusaders Sunday night, Amaker changed up the starting lineup. Saunders, Moundou-Missi, junior co-captain Siyani Chambers and the rest of the starting lineup hit the bench as sophomore Matt Fraschilla and senior Charlie Anastasi headlined a new beginning unit.
Afterwards, the coach—who used the same motivational tactic two years ago after a loss to Vermont—said that the tactic was intended to light a fire under the starting five.
“We didn’t feel like we played up to our standards and made a choice to go with a different lineup,” Amaker said. “Our guys responded in the fashion that I thought they would.”
“We trust our coaching staff with every decision they make,” Moundou-Missi added. “This was definitely the right decision… We learned our lesson and we got back today and played better.”
Harvard broke the game open by repeatedly getting past Florida Atlantic defenders off the dribble into the paint. Saunders repeatedly drove into the paint to create looks for cutting forwards, allowing the team to manufacture easy look after easy look. The forward trio of Cummins, Moundou-Missi, and senior Kenyatta Smith combined for 13 field goals on 22 attempts inside as Harvard poured in 38 points in the paint.
Saunders stressed after the game that the offense was focused on taking what was given to it. Against the Owls’ aggressive man-to-man defense, Harvard eschewed contested three-point tries, moving the ball quickly in hopes of finding open cutters by the rim.
The senior, who clanged his only three-point attempt of the night off the back of the rim, said that he was unconcerned with the team’s one-for-eight performance from behind the arc.
“We are going to knock down shots,” Saunders said. “It seems like there is always a point in the year where everyone is worried about our shooting, but shooting is the kind of thing where you can’t control it. There will be days where everything goes in, where nothing goes in. If we just stick to our defensive principles, we are going to start hitting shots.”
— Crimson staff writer David Freed can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.