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The last time Lavietes Pavilion saw men’s basketball action was eight months ago when an already playoff-eliminated Harvard closed out its 2021-22 Ivy League season with a 54-76 loss to Dartmouth. The uninspired home atmosphere during that game may have left the Crimson ready to leave a frustrating string of narrow losses in the past and look forward to a new season.
On Sunday afternoon, Harvard (4-1) finally had the opportunity to take the court at Lavietes Pavilion again. The Crimson took full advantage of that chance, dominating inside the paint by making 70.7% (29-of-41) of its two-point field goals and opening the 2022-23 home campaign with a convincing 69-59 win against Siena College (2-2).
The performance, deserving of a standing applause from the home crowd, capped off another solid team display and a fourth win in five games to start off the season.
The win against the Saints comes four days after a hard-fought 70-69 away win against Northeastern. In both games, Harvard’s opponents entered with recent narrow losses, a run of difficult games ahead, and an inclination that winning was not a desire but a necessity.
Coach Amaker reflected on how those circumstances made for some challenging games.
“I was really impressed,” Amaker said. “It's been a tough stretch for our guys with the travel, the competition, and the tournament. Coming back home after that and having to play at Northeastern and playing teams that feel like they have their backs against the wall, it's a dangerous position to be in. That's why I'm really proud of our kids for these last two games.”
The stand out player on Sunday afternoon was undoubtedly first-year forward Chisom Okpara. Okpara recorded a career-best 24 points as well as eight rebounds (both game-highs) in his first career home game for the Crimson.
“It was really exciting, it’s just surreal that I’m really here,” Okpara reflected.” I took it in before the game, I was in awe. I always wanted to play here and now I actually am. It was a really fun, really humbling experience.”
When asked about his confident performance, perhaps characteristic of a player with more than four games of college basketball experience, Okpara credited his teammates, coaches, and family.
“They say you worked really hard for this, take this opportunity,” Okpara said. “Play your heart out. If you play hard everything will take care of itself. If I have 0 points and 10 rebounds I’m fine; 0 rebounds and 20 points I’m fine. 0-0, I’m just playing hard. Whatever happens, happens, just play your best.”
Okpara certainly made the most of Sunday’s opportunity, going 10-for-13 on two-point field goals, 1-for-2 from 3-point range, and making 3-of-4 free throws, earning high praise from coach Amaker.
“We have a saying in our program that I think he’s adopted brilliantly,” Amaker said. “It’s that when you're willing to fit in it’s amazing how well you’ll end up standing out. He’s been throwing himself into what we need him to do and not worrying about anything other than that, and he’s blossomed and now he’s actually standing out.”
Siena started the game aggressively, sinking the first three-pointer of the contest in 20 seconds and roaring out to an early 11-2 lead. After a brief timeout, senior forward Chris Ledlum subbed in and helped switch up the tempo for Harvard, sparking a 9-0 run in which the Crimson pulled the score back level at 11-11.
Harvard traded field-goals with the Saints and entered into the last six minutes of the first half with the score even. The Crimson then switched on, sparking an offensive frenzy to pull ahead for the first time in the game. Relentless defense forced the Saints into four turnovers on four Crimson steals, of which Harvard capitalized on. Ledlum converted an old-fashioned three-point play and slammed home a dunk, and sophomore guard Louis Lesmond added another two-pointer off an assist from co-captain Luka Sakota. The result was a 13-3 Harvard run, enabling the hosts to go into halftime with a 35-27 advantage over the Saints.
From this point Amaker’s squad never looked back. In the second period, Siena was able to pull back within two points of the Crimson to set the game at 45-43 with just over 10 minutes to go but fell short of regaining the lead. Harvard proceeded to go on another 12-2 scoring run behind a pair of two-point field goals from Okpara and six consecutive points from junior co-captain Sam Silverstein, who would go on to finish the game with 13 points and a career-best five steals. The Crimson closed out the game without letting its lead shrink to less than eight points.
Ledlum also recorded a career-high four steals and added on another 18 points and four rebounds to continue his excellent start to the season.
“He’s our best player, he’s the guy that we have to play through and put things on his shoulders, and he’s able to deliver, so I’m expecting that of him,” said coach Amaker when asked about Ledlum’s contribution.
With the game coming to a close and little more than a minute on the clock, Silverstein nearly caught the Saints off guard, diving onto the floor in an attempt to salvage a loose ball and prevent Siena from regaining possession. The energetic move, with the Crimson up by nine points, drew cheers from the crowd and demonstrated the hard-working culture that coach Amaker and his players frequently point to as a reason for the Crimson’s success so far this season.
"In the past couple of games we have really focused on our culture,” Okpara said. “We go through film and walk through what the other team does, but it all comes back to how we start and what our culture is. A team with culture that consistently reflects its culture will go far."
Harvard continues play with another home game this Friday against Loyola University at 2:00pm before traveling to the Bronx for a matchup with Fordham on Sunday.
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