PHILADELPHIA, PA — With a minute left, and Harvard trailing by six points at the Palestra in a rematch of the 2018 Ivy League Championship, the writing appeared to be on the wall for Harvard men’s basketball. But someone forgot to tell Bryce Aiken that, and what ensued was a performance that left the over five thousand Penn fans in attendance in utter disbelief, as the visitors stormed all the way back to a 75-68 overtime win at the Cathedral of College Basketball.
At some point, words fall short of describing Bryce Aiken’s heroics. Two threes in the final minute of regulation, including a jaw-dropping 30-footer with five seconds left, knotted the game at 61 and sent what had already been an incredible contest into overtime. Just 55 seconds before, Aiken had knocked down a triple to cut the deficit to three points, but he was hardly done, drilling a three-pointer that will likely go down as one of the greatest moments of the season — capping a weekend sweep for the visitors.
Once the Crimson (13-8, 6-2 Ivy) entered the extra period, momentum was firmly in the its hands. Harvard never trailed in the five overtime minutes, as the Quakers (15-9, 3-5) showed signs of fatigue in their second overtime contest in as many nights. The Crimson were able to complete the comeback, winning at the Palestra for the first time in five seasons. Saturday night’s game was more than just another game for Harvard, as the team was able to avenge its Ivy League Championship loss from last season.
“This was a big game for us, this was a redemption game, we had a lot of pain in this building last season,” said sophomore forward Danilo Djuricic, who cited the highlight video playing in the Palestra pregame as extra motivation, which prominently featured clips from last season’s championship game. “We really wanted to come out, play hard, and represent our program, and this was a huge win for us.”
A night after scoring 33 points at Princeton, Aiken tallied a crucial 25, none bigger than the final six points of regulation. Perhaps most impressive about the Randolph, N.J., native’s performance, was the 40 minutes he played, to lead all Harvard players. Just a matter of weeks after returning from injury, there can be no doubt that No. 11 is back to his vintage self, playing with the same swagger and moxie that earned him Ivy League Rookie of the Year two seasons ago.
"Not just all the basketball plays that he makes and obviously they are all key, we have seen that, but his presence gives our team a great deal of confidence,” said Coach Tommy Amaker of having Aiken back in the lineup. “He’s a very confident player and carries himself like that and deservedly so. But it rubs off and becomes contagious with other players and I think that’s as big of a deal in that regard as any.”
Saturday night marked history for Coach Amaker, who registered his 400th victory at the collegiate level. Amaker’s head coaching career has taken him from Seton Hall, to Michigan, and finally to Cambridge. The victory had to be especially sweet for Amaker, who quickly deflected any added emphasis that might be placed on beating Penn.
“Everything’s different you move on to the next situation, next game, next situation,” Amaker said. “There are memories of moments here we have had, we have had some good ones too. Certainly the most recent one last year was not very pleasant one to have.”
Amaker’s 400th victory was in large part due to the Crimson’s three-point shooting, as Aiken and Justin Bassey combined to shoot 11-of-17 from deep, helping the team to a 46 percent mark from three-point territory. Not to overlooked was an absolutely heroic performance from junior wing Justin Bassey, who drilled a remarkable 6-of-8 three-pointers, two more than his previous career high. Bassey also led the team with 11 rebounds, hardly a surprise as he has cemented himself as the team’s most versatile player.
“JB does everything for us, Coach says he’s our most valuable player,” Djuricic said of Bassey. “Like you see tonight, he can have some great offensive nights, he was lights out tonight.”
Just as Harvard excelled from deep, Penn faltered in one of its most important games of the season. With the Quakers entering play at 3-4 in Ivy play, in fifth place in the conference, they were let down by their three-point shooting, which has bailed them out so many times before.
Despite boasting a series of excellent three-point shooters, including Bryce Washington, Devon Goodman, Jake Silpe, Michael Wang, Antonio Woods, and even big man AJ Brodeur, Penn was only able to convert on 7-of-28 triples. Many of the Quakers’ three-point looks were wide-open, and the cold shooting from the field allowed the Crimson to hang around and pull off the comeback.
Washington had a particularly difficult night for Penn. Despite shooting over 40 percent from deep this season, the freshman from Southfield, Mich., was unable to enter the score-sheet, and went 0-of-7 from beyond the arc. More than making up for Washington’s performance, however, was the resilient play of junior AJ Brodeur.
Brodeur’s 23-point performance on Saturday night was almost enough to give the Quakers a crucial second win on the homestand. Were it not for Aiken’s heroics, Brodeur would probably be a shoe-in for Ivy League player of the week -- the Northfield Mount Hermon product scored 36 points Friday night against Dartmouth, and was practically unguardable for much of Saturday’s contest.
“Brodeur was so tough to defend in the post, we had no answers for him,” Amaker said. “I thought we did as best we could to give ourselves a chance and I’m very pleased with the effort that we put forth.”
Brodeur’s matchup with junior forward Chris Lewis was one of the focal points of the duel between the Ancient Eight’s two best teams last season. Lewis started Saturday night slowly, but came into his own in the final minutes and in overtime, scoring several crucial baskets and ultimately finishing with 12 points in 28 minutes.
The statline wasn’t all pretty for the visitors, who incredibly, tallied just four assists. And as Harvard has become well-accustomed to, the four assists accompanied an eye-popping 19 turnovers. Nevertheless, the Crimson was able to persevere on another classic night in the Ivy League. Resiliency, and a willingness to fight back in a game that meant more than just another win in the standings, were what carried Harvard to victory Saturday night.
“It’s been a tremendous weekend for us, with the effort that you need to fight back and claw on the road,” Amaker said. “It’s not easy, but our kids, they deserve a lot of credit.”
The truth of the matter is, the Crimson are two ridiculous Bryce Aiken shots away from a 4-4 Ancient Eight record. But as the old adage goes, the league is won on Saturday nights, and in a results oriented business, the Crimson will happily take the two victories and speed off on I-95 into the night.
— Staff writer Amir Mamdani can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @AMamdani_THC.