With just over a minute left on the clock it looked as if Harvard was on the verge of handing Princeton its first conference loss of the season. Freshman forward Chris Lewis drove inside and laid one off the glass to give the Crimson the 54-50 lead with 1:18 on the clock.
After going down by as many as 13 in the same half, head coach Tommy Amaker’s squad had done exactly what it has done all season long—come back late in a close game.
On Saturday night, however, the magic that carried the Crimson back from a 15-point deficit against Penn the night before was absent in the final seconds. After sending the Tigers to the line where they would make one of two, Lewis would miss both free throws on the other end. A layup from junior guard Amir Bell then put Princeton within one with 21 seconds left to play.
The Tigers fouled Harvard guard Bryce Aiken and the freshman made both to give Harvard a three-point cushion with 15 seconds on the clock. Not many of the 2,195 people taking in the game at Lavietes Pavilion could have called what would happen on Princeton’s next possession.
With the Crimson defending the perimeter against the potential game-tying three, sophomore Myles Stephens drove inside and made a layup and was fouled by freshman guard Justin Bassey.
With seven seconds on the clock, Stephens’ free-throw had the potential to send the game into overtime.
Instead, Stephens’ shot bounced off the rim, and senior forward Steven Cook came up with the offensive rebound. Despite plenty of Crimson shirts in the paint, Cook laid it off the glass to give the Tigers a one point lead with three seconds left on the clock.
A crosscourt pass from freshman Robert Baker found its way into sophomore Corey Johnson’s hands for a last second three-point opportunity, but it only found rim as Princeton escaped with the 57-56 road win.
“First you have to give credit to Princeton,” co-captain Siyani Chambers said. “They came in here and battled hard. It was an ebb and flow game and they stuck with it and were able to pull out a tough win. It stings because we fought back pretty hard and put ourselves in a good position to win, but again credit to them for making some big plays down the stretch and battling back to win.”
What ended as a heartbreaker for Harvard began as one of its closest first halves in conference to date. Poor shooting and rebounding from the Tigers combined with plenty of turnovers from the Crimson made for a close game early on. In the first half alone Harvard turned the ball over 11 times with five coming from Lewis alone.
While the Crimson jumped out to an early lead, timely three pointers kept Princeton within scoring distance early on in the first. The Tigers went on an 11-3 run late in the half to give them an eight point advantage, but a layup from Lewis would end the half with Princeton up by six.
Despite the Tigers pushing their lead to 13 just over five minutes into the second half, the Crimson refused to let up. Back-to-back steals from Lewis would ignite the crowd as he would dunk one and then go to the line after a flagrant foul on the next. He finished the game with 11 points and seven rebounds on 5-of-6 from the field.
“I thought [Lewis] played incredibly well,” Amaker said. “I thought he was the catalyst for us to get back in it when he made those two steals out in the open floor, the big dunk he had and then the flagrant one foul in terms of us getting free throws and the ball back. I thought he was the one who kind of ignited our team and our crowd and kind of put us on the path to make a strong run at them. I’m really proud of him for how he played.”
Late in the second frame Harvard would also lock down on defense, at one point holding the Tigers without a field goal for a period of nearly five minutes midway through the period. The tight defense allowed the Crimson to climb back from the early deficit, but Princeton’s late heroics would give the guests the late win.
“I thought we competed very hard and I thought we did that on the defensive end,” Amaker said. “We dug in and I thought our kids were terrific, I feel like they gave great effort, great energy, fought very hard, battled all the way back. Big shot by Bryce and then we just didn’t close, we didn’t close, we didn’t finish.”
—Staff writer Troy Boccelli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.