In the latter frame, Harvard outscored Cornell by 14 points, capping off a game in which the Crimson shot over 44 percent from both the field and three-point range.
Sophomore forward Seth Towns, who Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said did not perform to his full potential on Saturday, tallied a team-high 24 points and 12 rebounds. Classmate Chris Lewis also notched a double-double, his fifth of the season.
“Tournaments and atmospheres can cause you to have a lot of energy, and wasted energy,” Amaker said. “We were concerned that we felt like we were gassed early and I thought some of that comes with the environment, the excitement…I think we settled in. I hate it, but it’s a fact of the game that you need to make a few shots before you can relax a little bit.”
Although Lewis was able to open the contest in resounding fashion with a slam dunk off of a drive-in from sophomore wing Justin Bassey, the Crimson played sluggishly for much of the first half. Lewis did not score his second basket until the 10-minute mark of the first frame, at which point Harvard trailed, 18-14.
Three early turnovers halted much of the offensive stability, animating Amaker when he called a timeout in the opening five minutes. After converting 17 triples against Columbia heading into this weekend, the Crimson hit just one trey in the first 10 minutes.
By the 4:58 mark of the opening frame, Harvard had fallen behind by seven points to the fourth-seeded Big Red. Cornell’s backcourt, led by junior guard Matt Morgan, took advantage of the Crimson defense on numerous possessions, finishing easy back-door layups. The Big Red also converted four triples in those 15 minutes.
From there, though, a sleeping Harvard offense re-awakened, capped off by an unlikely half-court buzzer beater to conclude the half. The last-second heave by sophomore point guard Christian Juzang was his third consecutive made triple to close out the frame. Alongside a three from freshman guard Rio Haskett at the 2:45 mark, late first half baskets propelled the Crimson to a five-point lead entering intermission.
“Coach always talks about the momentum going into the half and how big that can be going into the second half,” Juzang said. “We stuck with our other principles pretty well. Obviously, our shots weren’t falling for the first half, but we stuck in defensively as best we could. Lewis and the bigs cleaning up the rebounds, Seth getting to the free throw line, little things like that.”
In the last three minutes of the first frame, Harvard had converted a 28-21 deficit to a 37-32 lead. That hot streak continued through the referee’s whistle to start the second half. After having difficulty generating space against Cornell forward Stone Gettings in the first 20 minutes and getting trapped on double-teams, Lewis made some important adjustments at halftime.
In the team’s opening possession, the Harvard sophomore forcefully attacked the paint but saw his lay-up attempt rattle off the rim. Unflinched, Lewis regained the ball but missed again. It would take a resounding third attempt before Lewis successfully maneuvered his way to an open finish. Despite the initial fruitless attempts, the energy and hustle of Lewis on the glass proved to be a positive harbinger for the rest of the half.
“When he’s productive people have to collapse on him and it opens it up for everybody else,” Amaker said. “He’s the key for our team and our program and it allows all the other pieces to hopefully flow and fit. As we settled in you can see the balance that he causes for our team.”
Lewis tripled his disappointing first half point tally in the second frame, finishing with 16 total points on the contest. His initial bucket was answered by another backdoor layup from freshman guard Terrance McBride and a Morgan triple, but that two-point margin was as close as the Big Red would get towards eclipsing the Crimson.
Subsequently, Haskett tallied his second triple of the game, followed by another from freshman forward Danilo Djuricic at the 14:19 point. The 52-41 Harvard lead was its largest at that point, and that margin would continue to balloon. Two threes by Towns and continued success going in low to Lewis brought the lead to 18 entering the final eight minutes.
“That’s one of my roles on the team, to stay composed, be prepared for the moment,” Towns said. “Obviously, my teammates have confidence in me to make plays toward the end of games and critical moments that’s what I try to do.”
By then, Amaker had slowed the pace of the game and the team locked in on defense to seal the contest. Two straight turnovers heading into the eight-minute media timeout from Cornell epitomized how the Big Red confidence that had defined the early parts of the game had been sucked out of the Palestra.
With the Crimson holding onto a 19-point lead at the 4:16 mark, Amaker subbed out Towns and sophomore forward Justin Bassey before putting in his seniors to conclude the final two minutes of play.
With the victory, Harvard is set as the higher seeded team in tomorrow’s championship final, to be played on ESPN2 Sunday at noon. Only Penn stands in the way of the Crimson earning its first tournament berth since the 2014-2015 season.
—Staff writer Henry Zhu can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.