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Riding a six-game win streak, the Crimson (20-7, 9-3 Ivy) closes out its regular season this weekend at Lavietes against the Bears (13-12, 6-6 Ivy) on Friday and the Bulldogs (22-6, 10-1 Ivy) on Saturday. Harvard looks to secure a flawless record at home and come away with the No.1 seed in the Ivy League Tournament.
Despite having momentum on its side, coming away with two home victories will be a formidable task after losing senior guard Christian Juzang to an injury last week against Columbia. Juzang had been the starting point guard for the majority of the season, averaging 6.7 points and 2.8 assists, as the anchor of the Crimson offense.
“We’re kind of on pins and needles here going into the weekend,” coach Tommy Amaker said. “It definitely hurts not having Christian, in particular, being our quarterback and leader in Bryce’s absence.”
With Juzang sidelined, it is going to be crucial for the Harvard bench to step in and try to fill his shoes as the team’s leading guard. Fortunately for the Crimson, the team has prided itself in its ability to use its depth and find key contributors off the bench. In a season where the team did not have the services of senior forward Seth Towns and senior guard Bryce Aiken, it still found success with a variety of lineups.
“We have been steadfast here in the growth of our program to try to create and develop the depth of our bench,” coach Amaker said. “So now you know we have a great opportunity for us to have to dig a little deeper. Different guys have to be able to contribute and I'm anxious to see how it's gonna play out but I'm confident that we’ll be okay.”
In particular, the strength and versatility of its veterans will be critical for Harvard in order to maintain its stellar play in these high-pressure games. Junior guard Rio Haskett and senior forward Justin Bassey will be looked upon to control the offense in the absence of Juzang.
“Rio’s got to be the stabilizer for the team and we've got to look to him for strength and confidence,” coach Amaker said. “Justin needs to play like a veteran and lead us when we need it.”
The leadership of these veterans will be especially needed against Brown and Yale, two opponents that the Crimson have already faced in tough nailbiters. Against the Bulldogs, Harvard allowed a four-point play with under a second left that would have tied the game had senior guard Azar Swain not missed the crucial free throw. The following day, the Bears defeated the Crimson on an and-1 buzzer-beater from junior forward Tamenang Choh.
In order to come away with the victory against Brown this time, Harvard will need to limit the foul trouble it had in its last game against the Bears and play stalwart defense on senior guard Brandon Anderson. Anderson has averaged 17.6 points for the season and put up 22 against the Crimson in the last matchup.
With a win against the Bears, Saturday’s game against the Bulldogs could be a game to decide the No.1 seed in the Ivy League tournament, provided that Yale also beats Dartmouth.
“We need to make sure that we come away this weekend with two huge wins so that we have the opportunity to win another championship, going into the tournament,” said senior guard Justin Bassey,
The Bulldogs come into this weekend with the best conference record led by junior forward Paul Atkinson and junior guard Azar Swain. Both Atkinson and Swain are averaging more than 16 points, with Swain having torched Harvard for 33 points in their last matchup. Despite the potential high stakes of this game, the Crimson look to treat its preparation like any other.
“I think we treat every game as big,” senior forward Chris Lewis said. “So where they are in the schedule doesn't really matter. We know that we're going to always prepare the same for every team and we're going to show up and bring the effort that we need to.”
Lewis and all the other seniors are entering the home stretch of their Harvard careers. This weekend will be the last time they play at home before the tournament.
“I'm proud of this group of what they have accomplished,” coach Amaker said. “We're hopeful that, you know, they're able to finish it in a way that I know that they're excited about the opportunity to do so.”
The seniors on this team have been trying to win the league and make it to the NCAA tournament for four years. With a couple of victories this weekend, they hope to take one more step to the glory they’ve been waiting for.
— Staff writer Mahtab Shihab can be reached at email@example.com.
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