Every team practices closing out games. You have your strategy if you’re down and need to foul. You have your strategy if you’re up and need to maintain a gap. You have your press defense and your press break. When it comes to executing those plays in a one possession game, however, it’s not as easy as it comes in practice.
This was exactly the case when Harvard and Princeton battled to the wire at Lavietes Pavilion Saturday night. Though the Crimson held the advantage and had the strategy to close out, it couldn’t execute. Instead, Princeton guard Steven Cook corralled an offensive rebound and hit a layup with 2.9 seconds left in the game to defeat Harvard, 57-56.
“I thought they played really, really hard and competed but we didn’t close,” Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said. “We didn’t make the necessary plays down there at the end to close and win the game so that’s the disappointing part of putting together that kind of effort that these guys played with tonight.
While Princeton fans will remember Steven Cook’s layup to put Princeton up by one with 2.9 seconds to go, a collection of small mistakes on Harvard’s end put the Tigers in a position to steal victory from under the Crimson’s nose.
First, with Harvard up 54-51 after a long three by freshman guard Bryce Aiken, freshman forward Chris Lewis snagged a defensive rebound on the other end of the floor. Lewis was immediately fouled with 34 seconds left on the clock. Lewis—a 62.5 percent free throw shooter—missed both shots from the charity stripe, leaving Tiger forward Spencer Weisz to grab the rebound.
With 21 seconds remaining, Princeton guard Amir Bell pulled his team within one with a layup. But to Harvard, this basket wasn’t a huge scare, as its main goal was to defend the three. With the shot clock off, the home team could try and dribble out the clock, or end up at the free throw line.
With the ball back and 17 seconds remaining, Harvard succeeded in getting the inbounds pass to a strong free throw shooter in freshman guard Bryce Aiken. Aiken—who owns a 90 percent free throw percentage—sunk both shots from the line, extending the lead back to three. The Harvard fans were on their feet.
“[The fans] helped us get the momentum with their noise,” senior co-captain Siyani Chambers said. “They really put them in a tough situation I felt like. They really ratcheted it up with the pressure and we fed off it.”
Again, on the next defensive possession, Harvard needed to defend against the three and avoid fouling. Unfortunately for the Crimson, it just that. Princeton’s Myles Stephens drove to the basket and laid it in while being fouled by freshman forward Justin Bassey.
Stephens had a chance to tie the game with the free throw.
“Worst thing we could do was what we did which is give them a three-point opportunity driving it and fouling,” Amaker said.
But Stephens didn’t make the free throw. He missed. Then the ball hit the ground. Neither Lewis nor Bassey could get their hands on the rebound. Instead, Cook got the ball and went up for the layup. The Princeton fan contingent rose to its feet as what looked like an unlikely ending was happening for the Tigers.
Harvard had one last play. With 2.9 ticks to go, Harvard coach Tommy Amaker called a timeout to draw up a play. Amaker stacked the court with his best shooters. With freshman forward Robert Baker running the baseline, a trio of guards lined half court—Aiken, senior co-captain Siyani Chambers, and sophomore Corey Johnson. Chris Lewis lined up at the opposite foul line behind the line of guards.
Baker was able to inbound all the way to Lewis, who fed Johnson outside the arc. Johnson is Harvard’s best three-point shooter, making 44.4 percent of his attempts on the season. Johnson’s shot was within his typical range, but it missed the hole as the buzzer sounded.
While many individual plays or possessions could have turned the tides of a one-point victory for the Tigers, in the waning seconds, it was a pair of free throw misses, a foul, a missed rebound opportunity, and a missed three that were the demise for Harvard. Had any of these gone differently, the Crimson could have walked off the floor of Lavietes Pavilion with a different reaction than the “sting” described by Chambers.
“We practice these situations in practice, but there’s nothing like the game,” Chambers said. “Things happen, we’re going to watch the film and learn from it and do what we’re supposed to do and learn from some of the mistakes that we made and hopefully we don’t make them again.”
—Staff writer Theresa C. Hebert can be reached at email@example.com.
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