With Columbia’s upset over Yale, the Crimson will likely enter the Ivy tournament as the first-place seed if it can match the Bulldogs’ record in next week’s final weekend of Ivy play. But this game was much more than the inner-workings of conference seeding, as attested by players and Coach Amaker.
“It’s kind of surreal, but I wouldn’t want to be there with any other dudes,” captain Corey Johnson said. “I love my teammates and the reason why I get up every day and lead these guys — and be captain — is I believe in every one of them and just want to keep winning games and hopefully get that championship.”
In the 5:19 of game action allocated to the seniors, Harvard’s starting five of Tommy McCarthy, Robbie Feinberg, Corey Johnson, Weisner Perez, and Balsa Dragovic held its ground defensively. Princeton was held scoreless in its first six offensive possessions, turning over the ball twice. Johnson provided the Crimson’s sole offense with two top-of-the-key jumpers until Perez muscled a layup at the tail end of those initial five minutes.
“For [the seniors] to have the opportunity to get us off to a really good start, they did that,” coach Amaker said. “I thought the team was energized, the building was energized. We talked about if they can get us off to a good start, it would give us a great chance to finish right. I thought our seniors did exactly that.”
Outside of the seniors and their families, the other notable guest-of-honor was Kyrie Irving, point guard of the Boston Celtics and alum of The Patrick School, from which Harvard guard Bryce Aiken is also a graduate. Aiken rallied from a quiet six-point first half to tally a team-high 22 points on the night in front of his long-time friend and mentor.
“I approach every game the same, regardless of who was here,” said Aiken when asked about Kyrie’s appearance, “I come out here playing for my team with the name across my chest...with a winner’s mentality and just attack it.”
Harvard led 6-3 as the seniors took the bench, but the early margin would not hold despite the re-entry of the usual starters. The Tigers jumped out to a quick 9-2 run, while the Crimson offense stagnated outside of a Lewis hook shot.
Aiken struggled out of the gate, but re-discovered his touch right when the Crimson needed him the most early on. Following his first made jumper of the contest at the 8:22 point, Aiken followed with two consecutive layups with the second following a pick-off of freshman Jaelin Llewellyn. That play brought the game back to square-even at 17.
The first half was again largely a defensive showcase, much like last night’s contest against Penn in which the Crimson put up just 22 points, compared to the Quakers’ 26. Harvard shot 29.7 percent from the field in the first frame, with just an early Haskett triple and Catchings lay-up complementing Aiken’s six points and Lewis’ lone bucket in the first ten minutes of action following the exit of the seniors.
The Crimson concluded the half with two strong finishes at the basket from first-year Noah Kirkwood and Lewis, holding a Tigers team that went stone-cold in the final 4:40 of the frame. Princeton went 8-of-23 from the field on the half, with just sophomore guard Ryan Schweiger’s five points highlighting the rest of the Tigers box score.
“We had 37 shots in the first half, so we had so many more because of the offensive rebounding,” Amaker said. “But we weren’t able to convert. That’s what we were talking about at halftime...we missed a lot around the rim, didn’t get to the foul line at all. So we really talked about it at the half, that we really needed to take advantage of the opportunities that we were going to get in the second half.”
Aiken’s notched a quiet six points in the first frame, but quickly put a dent on the scoring sheet coming out of the second-half locker room. Starting off the first Crimson offensive possession with an up-and-under finish, the Randolph, NJ., native knocked down his third jumper of the contest followed by a deep triple in Harvard’s 9-2 run to start the stanza.
The Crimson’s eight-point margin it carved in that span would hold form heading into the halfway point of the frame. Harvard seemed allergic to the charity stripe, not taking a free throw the entire contest until the 13-minute mark of the second frame. Offensively, Aiken knocked down his second triple of the contest after going between-the-legs and launching a line-drive shot over Myles Stephens at the 11:59 point, complementing two more signature hook shots by Lewis.
Kale Catchings continued to play a meaningful impact on the defensive end, swiping away two balls as the Crimson had open opportunities on the drive. The Tigers scored five straight field goals heading into the eight-minute point, but the Crimson held strong with another Aiken step-back triple and a Djuricic open-lane dunk to preserve a three-possession margin.
The Tigers kept its fight alive as Mitch Henderson put the ball in junior big Richmond Aririguzoh's hands on the interior. Aririguzoh knocked down four free throws while Stephens converted on an and-one opportunity to narrow the margin to four.
But it was the freshman, Kale Catchings, who provided the needed end-of-game lift for the Crimson. The Missouri native found bottom of the net for two straight threes to bring the lead back to 59-51 with 3:30 to play. In another strong performance on both ends of the court, Catchings stepped up in the absence of junior Justin Bassey.
“We have had a lot of motivated guys to pick it up and I have kind of fed of that,” Catchings said. “We have really competitive practices every day so I never felt I would struggle to give my best effort. I know I can try my best to pick up what we missed in Justin [Bassey].”
The second Catchings triple was also a byproduct of hungry rebounding from Djuricic, who talled an impressive five offensive boards in the game. In what has become an integral component to his game, Djuricic has used his long wingspan to tip balls back to the perimeter, extending multiple possessions offensively.
“Big plays for us, big winning plays that we had to make,” Amaker said. “Bryce’s ability to when he drives to find people, to make the play and not just make the shot. Very impressed by his ability to do that tonight. Our team is so much better when he is showing confidence in his teammates in that particular way.”
A Kirkwood triple at exactly the final minute of play all but sealed this contest, capping off his 3-of-8, nine-point night for the freshman. The energetic crowd started a “We want seniors” chant in the final minutes, but Amaker did not oblige to these demands. Still, the coach acknowledged in laudatory fashion the contributions of this class at the postgame presser.
“We mentioned in the locker room how proud we are of what they have contributed to this program,” Amaker said. “To be able to close it out for their home tenure with a win this weekend over Princeton is very meaningful...Their contributions to this program over the four years have been immeasurable and I can’t thank them enough.”
In the players’ run at the presser, Aiken demonstrated his appreciation for the seniors in fitting fashion, symbolically insisting that senior Corey Johnson be asked the last question. But when it appeared as if it was Catchings — and not the captain — would end the presser, Aiken stepped in to meet this demand.
“Corey, if you could describe [the] Harvard experience with one word?” Aiken asked.
After a brief chuckle, Johnson delivered the final word in his final Lavietes home game.