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Harvard men’s basketball (12-8, 3-3 Ivy) knows the difference a single possession can make.
Last season, the Crimson narrowly missed out on the opportunity to compete in the Ivy League Tournament due to a series of defeats, such as the heartbreaking 74-73 loss to Princeton that ultimately sealed Harvard’s fate.
The start of the 2022-23 Ivy League season has demonstrated that the margins are as fine as ever — four of the six games the Crimson has played against teams in the Ivy have been decided in the dying moments of the second half.
Following its final home game of 2022, a 66-54 loss to Howard, Harvard kicked off a six-game away stretch with match-ups against UC Irvine (13-6) and No. 4 Kansas (16-4).
The road trip gave the Crimson the opportunity to compete with one of the best teams in the country, the University of Kansas, at the legendary Allen Fieldhouse. Despite losing to the Jayhawks 68-54, Harvard pushed its opponents the entire game, remaining within two possessions of a lead with just under four minutes on the clock.
“We recognized how talented and good they are, especially here in this building,” reflected head coach Tommy Amaker after the game.
“I thought our kids fought tooth and nail. I thought we made momentum plays when we had opportunities to cut into the lead to stay within striking distance.”
Returning to the East Coast, the Crimson pulled out a dramatic 74-73 overtime win against the University of Maine before heading to Princeton to start the Ivy League season. Harvard lost 69-66 to the Tigers, setting the tone for what has been a season of tense matchups decided by just a few points.
Alternating between victories and defeats, the Crimson next beat Brown in a dramatic 70-68 overtime thriller, before falling 58-54 to Yale. On its return to Lavietes Pavilion, Harvard convincingly beat Columbia 73-51, before a one-point 60-59 loss to Dartmouth. The Crimson returned to winning ways with a high scoring 95-89 win over Cornell on January 21st.
The Crimson’s offensive output has varied dramatically game-to-game. Harvard has often had to rely upon superior finishing inside of the paint to compensate for poor three-point shooting.
Coach Amaker acknowledged the team’s offensive struggles after the 58-54 loss to Yale but praised the team’s mentality.
“I was really proud of our team's effort of battling and fighting to give us a chance to be in the game late when we obviously shot the ball incredibly poorly, especially from three. Our effort was there,” Amaker said.
Despite its challenges, the Crimson’s most recent game against Cornell showcased the offensive efficiency the team has the potential to display. The Crimson scored a season-high 95 points with impressive efficiency, shooting 32 of 53 (60.4%) from the field including 10 of 18 (55.6%) from three-point range (well above the league average of 33.8%).
It’s difficult to pinpoint the difference across the team’s inconsistent offensive performances. After the game against Cornell, junior co-captain Sam Silverstein accredited the win to team chemistry.
"This game, more than any the whole season, we stuck together as a unit – all five guys on the floor, coaches, and the subs that came in and had big contributions,” the point guard said.
“Games against Cornell can get wild, but we trusted each other and stuck with it."
Defensively, the Crimson have remained solid this season with the second-lowest number of points allowed per game in the league.
Senior forward Chris Ledlum continues to be a difference-maker on the court. After missing most of last year’s Ivy League season due to injury, Ledlum has averaged a team-high of 19.1 points per game this season, ranking second in the Ivy League in the number of points scored.
When asked about the secret behind his consistency on the court, Ledlum humbly credits his teammates for putting him in the right positions.
“It’s really just my teammates. They trust me and find me in good spots. They've been trusting me, we've been trying a lot of stuff and it’s been working,” said Ledlum after the Crimson’s riveting victory against the second-ranking team in the Ivy League, Cornell.
In addition to his prowess as one of the best offensive players in the league, Ledlum is a leader for the team in all areas of play – he also leads the Ivy League in rebounding with an average of six per game, and he consistently breaks up opponents’ plays with 33 steals so far on the season.
The Crimson has also benefited from the return to full health of junior forward Justice Ajogbor, whose physical dominance is making an impact in his first full season for Harvard.
During the start of the 2021-22 season, the Crimson missed the presence Ajogbor offers near the rim and suffered in certain games by being out-rebounded by opponents. Since then, Harvard has improved its rebound margin from -0.5 to 5.0. Ajogbor is second in the Ivy League statistics for blocks per game, having recorded 32 so far this season.
First-year forward Chisom Okpara has also continued to impress, averaging 7.3 points and 3.6 rebounds a game. What's more, sophomore guard Evan Nelson recorded a career-high seven assists in the team’s victory over Cornell.
The Crimson currently sits fourth in the Ivy League standings, where it occupies the last of four qualifying spots for the Ivy March Madness tournament.
When asked after Saturday’s win against Cornell about the team’s objectives moving forward, Ledlum had no hesitation, saying that “the goal is an Ivy Championship and we’re gonna keep working hard every day.”
Next up for the Crimson is a face-off against Ivy foe Penn on the Quakers’ turf this Saturday at 2:00 p.m. EST.
—Staff writer Alex Bell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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