Bryce Aiken’s words could not have rung more true on Saturday afternoon, with a chance to avenge the 2018 Ivy League Championship loss at Penn.
The Harvard men’s basketball team did just that, dashing past the Quakers in the final minutes to book a spot in the tournament final in New Haven. The third time against the Crimson was not the charm for Penn, who fell yet again to Harvard by a 66-58 scoreline that didn’t do the intensity of the contest justice.
An all-around effort on both sides of the court complemented lead scorer Bryce Aiken’s 19-point performance, capped off by a late top-of-the-arc dagger three over Quakers guard Antonio Woods. That triple widened the Crimson margin to six, and Harvard secured the victory in the final six minutes with a turn around jumper from freshman Noah Kirkwood and the junior Bryce Aiken’s lay-up.
“We had to do everything we could to make winning plays to win the game,” Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said. “I don’t think we played particularly well, but I thought we were tough and we made winning plays...I thought the difference for us was on the foul line and certainly on the backboard. We needed every single one of those numbers to win the game this afternoon.”
The prolific offensive dominance by Penn junior big AJ Brodeur continued on Saturday afternoon, as the 17.4 PPG man logged an efficient 10-of-20 outing on the stat line. Brodeur added 25 points to his previous 47 points inflicted on the Crimson side this season, but was rejected twice by Crimson big Chris Lewis late in the contest.
Freshman Kale Catchings, who made his fifth start tonight, was another critical component defensively, providing relief on Lewis in defending the over-sized Brodeur despite being undersized.
“[Brodeur] appears to be the heart and soul of their team in terms of how they play through him,” Amaker said. “He is very tough to defend and we tried to mix different types of players on him, Lewis being bigger, stronger, Kale being a little smaller and having great base and balance and quickness as a big-time athlete. So we had to try different people.”
The Quakers threatened with numerous runs in the second frame, including a 6-0 push as everything appeared to rim out for Harvard to kick off the second half, as well as an 8-2 spurt at the 10-minute mark. The Crimson went behind 43-48 at the point, but ensuingly scored eight unanswered to retake the lead.
Penn’s fouls also racked up on a team already thin in bench depth. Starting four Max Rothschild was forced to hit the pine only five minutes into the second frame with his fourth personal, while second-leading scorer Devon Goodman fell victim to a taken charge by Danilo Djuricic at the 7:06 point, giving the junior his fourth foul. Goodman’s foul trouble did not seem to be an issue as he carried just one personal heading into the concluding ten minutes. But the Penn guard heard the referee’s whistle three times in quick succession, and had to take a momentary breather on the bench.
Despite beating Penn twice this season already, the Crimson showed signs of nerves early on. Harvard looked shaky to start, early in the afternoon on Saturday. The Quakers leapt out to a 7-0 lead, and fed off of the energy present in the building, thanks to a heavy contingent of the Red and Blue faithful in the crowd at Payne Whitney Gymnasium.
But if the Crimson looked poised to go out in the semifinal round, Aiken had other ideas. The Randolph, N.J., native forced a turnover, before whipping a pass to Kirkwood to put Harvard on the board, following the play up with a layup of his own. Aiken’s early spurt helped calm the Crimson early on, but back-to-back baskets from Brodeur and a triple from Goodman forced Amaker to call his first timeout, as Penn took a 14-4 lead.
As the first half wore on, Harvard chipped away at the lead, locking down on the Quakers’ perimeter shooting after Penn started the game 3-of-5 from beyond the arc. A big and-one play from sophomore forward Danilo Djuricic narrowed the deficit, and the Ivy League regular season champs were finally able to level the score with three free throws from Juzang, who was fouled by the Quakers’ Jake Silpe on a three-pointer.
A triple by Kirkwood in the closing minutes of the half gave the regular season champions their first lead of the semifinal, and free-throws from Catchings allowed the Crimson take a lead into halftime. Both first-years played admirably in the biggest collegiate games of their careers, and Kirkwood in particular shined offensively, knocking down two of the biggest threes of the contest.
“My approach was the same, mentally I felt I was fine,” Kirkwood said on his mentality in his first time playing in the Ivy tournament. “I have great teammates like Bryce and a lot of upperclassmen especially that were guiding me and telling me the ropes of how these games go on with the shorter warmups and all that stuff. I felt prepared even before I stepped on the floor.”
The Ivy League championship game tips off at noon tomorrow morning on ESPN2. Only the winner of the Yale-Princeton contest stands in the way of the Crimson’s return back to the Big Dance. Harvard has not appeared in March Madness since the 2015 season, a year in which the Crimson fell by just two points to the University of North Carolina in the NCAA Tournament.
“Everyone contributed to this game and played a big part [in the win],” Aiken said. “My teammates played terrific and picked up the slack. Obviously it hurt with that loss last year so we just wanted to come out and get the win.”
If Harvard is to advance to March Madness, they will have to most likely beat Yale or Princeton for a third time this season. But this Crimson team, that has so brilliantly exorcised the demons of last season by beating Penn for a third time, is more than equipped to do the job. When the dust settled on Saturday afternoon, Tommy Amaker’s team found themselves 40 minutes from March Madness.
— Staff writer Henry Zhu can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Zhuhen88.
— Staff writer Amir Mamdani can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @A_MamdaniTHC.