NEW HAVEN, CT—Despite not making a field goal over the final 4:56 of game action, the Harvard men's basketball team topped Yale, 54-52, on Friday night at John J. Lee Amphitheater.
With just over five minutes to play in the second half, sophomore wing Miye Oni finished a layup to give the Bulldogs their first advantage of the evening. The lead would last a mere 15 seconds and neither team would make another field goal until Alex Copeland made a meaningless buzzer beater to get the hosts within two for the final box score.
Five free throws down the stretch proved to be all that the Crimson would need to hold on for the victory. As it has for most of the season, the defense for Harvard was suffocating and allowed the guests (8-10, 3-0 Ivy League) to get the best of their archrival (8-11, 1-2).
"We've been a tremendous defensive team and we've struggled offensively to find a great rhythm and we've found that we've gone into droughts at times," Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said. "We have to get better at that where we are not going into those kinds of droughts. Hopefully things will turn around for us so that we play on a better consistent offensive type of game but we haven’t been able to put that together this year much at all.”
Sophomore wing Justin Bassey was tasked with guarding Oni, Yale's leading scorer, on Friday. The Denver, Colo., native kept Oni at bay for most of the evening, with the highlight coming with five seconds to play. With the Bulldogs trailing by three as the final seconds began to tick away, the hosts got the ball into the hands of their leading scorer. Oni ran off of a screen, caught the ball behind the three-point line a few steps to the right of the top of the key. The sophomore elevated in an attempt to tie the game but his jumper was met by the fingertips of Bassey, leaving the shot attempt short as it fell into the hands of Harvard sophomore forward Seth Towns.
Towns would ice the contest at the line with 2.7 seconds to play. For the game, the Crimson was able to completely stymy Oni, who entered the contest averaging 16.4 points per game. Harvard held the Porter Ranch, Calif., native to seven points on 3-of-13 shooting on a night when Yale as a team shot just 30.4 percent from the field.
Bassey was also the Crimson player who gave his team the lead that remained at three far longer than anyone could have imagined. After neither team scored for nearly three minutes, Bassey was fouled shooting a three-pointer with 2:11 to play. The sophomore nailed all three at the line, his only points of the evening on a night in which easy baskets were at a premium, to put his team up for good.
The lack of scoring that characterized the final five minutes stood in stark contrast to the bursts of offense that took place for both teams in the first half. Harvard got off to a fast start, playing some of its best basketball of the season in the game's opening minutes. The Crimson jumped out to a 7-0 lead over the first 1:52. Harvard forced Yale to take a timeout after junior guard Corey Johnson hit a three-pointer and made it burn another after Yale was unable to inbound the ball coming out of the huddle. Johnson had eight points out of the gate as the offense clicked on all cylinders.
"A quick start was critical for us and we talked about those first four minutes," Amaker said. "I thought our kids were dialed in and ready and we were able to get out of the blocks early and fed off that momentum."
On the other end, the Crimson forced the Bulldogs into bad shots possession after possession. Yale settled for jump shots as its undersized frontline struggled to create spacing in the Harvard defense. The Crimson was able to maintain the strategy, leading to frustration for the Bulldogs for most of the evening. Yale made just six of its 24 three-point attempts and did not convert a single two-point basket outside of the paint.
While Harvard forward Chris Lewis disrupted Bulldog shot attempts on defense, the sophomore was also having his way on the other end. Lewis used his size advantage over junior forward Blake Reynolds and capitalized on his strength and experience when Yale coach James Jones tasked freshman Paul Atkinson with covering him. Lewis was largely the difference in a game marked by physicality and half-court offense. The Alpharetta, Ga., native led all players with 16 points, 11 rebounds, and four offensive boards. The Crimson outpaced Yale on the defensive glass, 30-25, and conceded just seven second chance points.
“We were going to dig down on the post with him a little bit, trying to get him on the block,” Yale coach James Jones said. “Didn’t do a great job on that but you’ve got to pick your poison a little bit and try to help out a little bit.”
The ice cold start for the Bulldogs carried on well into the first half. Ten minutes into the frame, Johnson was outscoring Yale on his own, 11-8. Harvard would grow its lead to 16, but, as it often has this season, the Crimson went cold shooting the basketball, allowing the Bulldogs to claw their way back before the break. After having converted 11 of its first 18 field goal attempts, Harvard began coming back down to earth.
Its slide on the offensive end translated into better looks for Yale as well. The Crimson missed seven of its final nine shots to close out the half and turned the ball over five times in the 7:52 leading up to the intermission. While Yale found twine on just four of its first 15 shot attempts, the Bulldogs closed the half on a 16-4 run and entered the locker room trailing by just four.
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