Even trailing by 10 at halftime did not seem too insurmountable of a deficit, as the Crimson held North Carolina (10-3) to a 3-of-12 line from deep and kept the score within six heading into the final stretch of the half, thanks to two triples from freshman Noah Kirkwood and junior Christian Juzang.
Harvard would also have revenge on its mind, after dropping a heartbreaking 67-65 final in the second round of the 2015 NCAA Tournament. The Crimson seemed unfazed by the prospect of taking on legendary coach Roy Williams in the Dean Smith Center, one of the most imposing arenas in college basketball.
But soon after those brave folks donning the crimson settled back into their seats for the latter 20 minutes, the sliver of enthusiasm dissipated. A nine-minute field goal drought starting at the 16 minute mark doubled the halftime margin and left the Crimson fighting for respectability to close out a 77-57 game.
“Really tough for us to be able to run good offense with their length and athleticism,” coach Tommy Amaker said. “[UNC is] just obviously very fast in transition. We tried our [best] to keep them out of the open floor as best we could by getting back, but easier said than done.”
The drought contributed to a 16-1 Tar Heel run, which sucked the life from the small, but mighty Crimson crowd. What momentum Harvard had from the field in the first half was swept away in the second period, as the length and intensity of the Tar Heel defense allowed the hosts to pull away.
After knocking down 5-of-10 first half triples, the Crimson only converted on 3-of-14 second half three-pointers, and shot a paltry 34 percent from the field in the final 20 minutes. Harvard matched its season-low, scoring only 57 points against a highly touted Tar Heel defense. The Crimson continue to sorely miss juniors Bryce Aiken and Seth Towns, and games like Wednesday night help highlight the scoring vacuum their injuries have left.
“I even told [Tommy Amaker], ‘Just think if you had gotten Wendell Carter,’” Coach Williams said. “They could’ve been a top 10 team last year. I know without [Aiken and Towns] Harvard isn’t the team they’re going to be when they get those guys back.”
Further contributing to Harvard’s offensive tribulations were turnovers, which came early and often. A storyline that has haunted the Crimson all season, the visitors turned the ball over 12 times in the first half, and 22 times across the game’s 40 minutes. Entering the game 334th out of 351 Division I programs, Harvard’s performance Wednesday night will drop the team into the bottom 10 teams in the country in ball security, at 17 turnovers per game.
Defensively, the Crimson battled valiantly against the 15th ranked team in the nation, doing its best to lock down offensive weapons Nassir Little, Luke Maye, Kenny Williams, and Cameron Johnson. Harvard had success limiting the offensive breakouts of North Carolina in the first half, but the second period offered a different story.
The Tar Heels broke out in the second half, opening up a 20-point lead that would allow the hosts to polish off an undefeated 7-0 non-conference record at the Dean Smith Center. Eventually, Little, Maye, Johnson, Williams, and the energetic Coby White would all finish in double-figures. Only Robert Baker reached 10 points for the Crimson, with Juzang chipping in nine points.
“Just trying to contain them and their transition offense is one of many things [that was challenging] and trying to make sure they don’t get any second chance points,” Juzang said. “[Coby’s] transition offense and the pace at which he pushes it is something we haven’t really seen before.”
In the midst of the second frame scoreless stretch, Amaker attempted to infuse some young energy by inserting all four freshmen simultaneously alongside junior forward Chris Lewis. The move was to no avail, as UNC went on an 8-0 run to widen the margin from 51-40 to 59-40 near the final ten minutes of play.
“I thought they really worked hard to do certain things that we were trying to get down to accomplish,” Amaker said, “Those young guys are going to be good for us and [there are] growing pains as we know, with young players, but we certainly like their futures.”
On the night, junior guard Bassey grabbed a season-high 11 boards. Lewis also tied a career-high of four rejections in an otherwise unsatisfying stat sheet for the visitors.
“I think we’re always one game away,” said Juzang of his team’s desire to remedy its mistakes. “I think things are starting to click here and there, and for us it’s about putting a full 40 minutes together.”
Longtime Dukie Amaker’s trip back to Tobacco Road concluded on unfavorable terms, but the nostalgia of his college days will take a backseat to more pressing priorities approaching the Ancient Eight campaign.
“It’s great to be back, but certainly we came here for an opportunity to hopefully get our team better,” Amaker said. “We get conference play starting up next so we have a lot of work to do as you probably saw.”
Harvard will travel to Hanover, N.H. to open its Ivy League season against Dartmouth on January 12th.
—Staff writer Amir Mamdani can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @AMamdaniTHC.
—Staff writer Henry Zhu can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Zhuhen88.
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