Nearly a year after Harvard men’s basketball’s 2018 campaign ended in the Palestra at the hands of Penn in the Ivy League Championship, the Crimson fed off of a sold-out crowd at Lavietes Pavilion to sweep the season series from the Quakers by a 59-53 score, clinching a spot in this season’s Ivy League Tournament in the process.
Harvard (15-9, 8-3 Ivy) rode its depth and balance to its second win over Penn in as many weeks, as four players scored in double figures to help the Crimson secure an Ivy Madness berth, and severely damage the Quakers’ chances of qualifying in the process.
“One of the things that helps us keep pushing and keep fighting during a game is that memory of Philly last year,” said sophomore guard Rio Haskett. “Remembering how it felt, every time we see them, we just try to give it back to them.”
Although Penn (16-11, 4-7) led for much of the first half, Harvard refused to be deterred, coming up with stop after stop on the defensive side of the floor to earn one of the grittiest victories of the season. Despite AJ Brodeur’s 24 point performance, the Quakers were unable to break through Harvard’s stout defense down the stretch, and were left to rue their missed opportunity to climb into the final spot in the top four of the Ancient Eight. Penn was held to just 34 percent shooting for the game and fell to sixth in the league standings — especially impressive for the hosts, considering they were missing star defender Justin Bassey.
“Very happy with how we defended,” Harvard Coach Tommy Amaker said. “I thought we played with a great deal of energy, and we fought them, which we needed to do.”
The Crimson played with the toughness and poise of an Ivy League contender, and were unfazed by several cold streaks on the offensive end. On two separate occasions, Harvard went over six minutes without a field goal, but relied heavily upon the crucial performances of sophomores Danilo Djuricic and Haskett, whose play off of the bench was the difference in a game lacking much offensive rhythm.
“I thought Mario and Danilo, and the kids that came off our bench for us did a tremendous job,” Coach Amaker said. “I was really pleased with that.”
Djuricic and Haskett both drilled three triples apiece, coming up with 10 and 11 points respectively, all the more important on a night when junior guard Bryce Aiken struggled to weather waves of Penn defenders that Quakers’ coach Steve Donohue sent in his direction. Just 13 days after Aiken’s heroics carried the Crimson to a thrilling overtime win at the Palestra, Penn seemed determined to make anyone other than No. 11 beat them.
Harvard was more than willing to oblige, riding Djuricic, Haskett, and a game-high 12 points and 10 rebounds from first-year Noah Kirkwood. Kirkwood’s double-double was the first of his career, as the Northfield Mount Hermon product led all players on both teams in rebounding.
“That’s what we need him to do, that’s what he’s expected to do,” Haskett said. “He’s tough, he’s really coming into his own, and maturing really fast.”
With the Quakers’ Ivy League Tournament hopes hanging by a thread, Coach Donohue employed a very deep rotation, using 12 players in the hopes of wearing out Harvard’s eight-man rotation. Sparsely used center Mark Jackson saw his first action in Ivy League competition, playing for the first time since November. The 7’3 sophomore from Salt Lake City towered over Harvard’s Kale Catchings, but only played two minutes, scoring one point.
For the second straight game, Catchings saw significant run, after his career-high 16 points at Yale last Saturday. Catchings, Kirkwood, and fellow freshman Mason Forbes all played at least 13 minutes, and demonstrated Coach Amaker’s confidence in his first-year players, choosing to ride the hot hand over the more experienced bench options of Henry Welsh and Robert Baker.
“It speaks to the team that we have, and the word sacrifice that we’ve embraced all year,” Coach Amaker said. “You know what, those guys could be ready to play possibly tomorrow.”
After a see-saw second half, the final minutes saw tense defensive stops carry the hosts to victory. One of the most understated plays of the game occured with 16 seconds, when Djuricic alertly tipped a missed free-throw back into the hands of Christian Juzang’s waiting arms, all but sealing the game and serving as a testament to the Brampton, Ontario., native’s willingness to make the gritty play for his team.
“The biggest thing for us, we’re such a deep team that everyone has to be ready, stay positive, and when your name gets called you go out and contribute and give it your all,” Djuricic said. “We particularly try to focus in on defense first, and let the offense come to us.”
With senior night looming tomorrow at Lavietes Pavilion, Harvard will savor the taste of a victory over a foe that has haunted them in recent years. As the team approaches its final three games of the season, playing with the grit and toughness on display Friday night will be crucial if the Crimson hope to advance beyond the Ivy League Tournament to March Madness.
“Keeping that mindset of being desperate, that’s the big word,” Haskett said. “That’s what’s keeping us together right now, and helping us through adversity in games. We need this, we need everything.”
In just two weeks time, Harvard will be in New Haven on the eve of the Ivy League semifinal. But for tonight, the Crimson will savor the taste of revenge, a dish best served on a cold Cambridge night.
— Staff writer Amir Mamdani can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @AMamdani_THC.