“It was gritty, it was tough and our kids were on the winning side of that — we probably made more of those plays and we needed to,” said Amaker in alluding to the team’s toughness against an Aggies side featuring formidable interior players Josh Nebo and Savion Flagg.
Senior guard Bryce Aiken struggled to get into his offensive rhythm for much of the afternoon, shooting 3-of-12 from the field and 1-of-9 from deep. But the Crimson was buttressed offensively with strong performances from seniors Chris Lewis — who scored 10 points highlighted by a monster jam midway in the second half that pushed the Crimson towards a double-digit margin — and Justin Bassey, who amassed 16 points and was a key contributor in closing the game out.
“I thought we did a great job moving the ball, getting extra passes, getting everyone involved,” Bassey said. “Also stepping up on the defensive end. [Texas A&M] was a great offensive team so...boxing out and limiting their ability to score was huge for us.”
Junior Rio Haskett also impressed off the bench, hauling in 10 points alongside two steals. His lone assist of the game — in which he found an open Bassey and extended the lead to 52-44 just prior to the final media timeout — exemplified a game in which the Crimson saw a considerable chunk of its opportunities come in the form of triples through near-incessant ball movement.
“Rio [Haskett] was arguably the reason for us winning,” Amaker stated. “His drive-and-kick to Bassey and the big three at a critical time gave us a little bit of a larger margin. It was one of those plays where you felt the momentum on our side after that shot.”
The Crimson’s reliance on the three for its offense came despite only shooting 2-of-17 from deep in the first half. But a Buzz Williams-side that clogged the paint and relied on its size to compensate for its lack of depth (only six scholarship players practiced at one time this week) made other alternatives offensively challenging for the Crimson.
“We held them to 32 percent from the field, which is elite; 20 percent from 3, which is better than elite,” said Williams, who also noted that this was the best the Aggies had played all season. “It was the lowest [opponent] offensive rebound percentage we’ve had.”
The Crimson carried a four-point lead into halftime, but squandered it quickly within the first four minutes of the half. A clearly-upset Amaker recalibrated the side, and the Crimson responded accordingly. Lewis smothered Flagg on the first defensive possession with a resounding block, spurring a 7-0 run.
“We didn’t start the second half particularly well,” Amaker said. “So, I thought we regrouped and dug in defensively to get stops which we needed.... Bassey made some big threes, Haskett made a big three in the second half for us. We made some plays that allowed us to get the momentum and some confidence that we needed.”
The Crimson reciprocated after every small spurt from the Aggies and was perfect from the free-throw line (22-of-22). Texas A&M’s most promising stretch of play in the second was capped off by a Nebo alley-oop that drew the margin to three with five to play, but that was the closest Harvard would allow its opponent to go.
“They came out with a lot of toughness and we had to match that, we knew that coming in...from our scout,” Bassey added.
With the win, the Crimson will have a monumental test tomorrow against another team with considerable size, led by NBA prospect Jalen Smith. Senior guard Anthony Cowan Jr. is coming off a career-high 30-point performance against Temple for a nationally-ranked Maryland side that has scored 80.7 points per game and eclipsed its opponents by 20.2 points this season. Harvard’s last test against a top-five team was back in 2015, when it fell to No. 3 Oklahoma at the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii.
A side that entered this tourney 17th in the country in blocks will need another dominant defensive performance to have any shot at upsetting the Terps, alongside some more offensive consistency(The matinee will be at 11:30 AM and televised on ESPN2). With its veterans long-accustomed to back-to-back Ivy weekends, a short recovery in sunny Orlando awaits in a potentially program-shifting game on Black Friday.
— Staff writer Henry Zhu can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.