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The wounds are still fresh for Harvard men’s basketball, who were barred from playing in the Ivy Madness tournament on home court last season after back-to-back losses against Princeton one year ago today. The second of those two games was a one-point 74-73 victory for the Tigers, who went on to lose to Yale in the Ivy Madness final.
After falling short in its season opener to bitter rivals Princeton (18-8, 9-4 Ivy) by a single possession, 69-66, the Crimson (14-13, 5-8 Ivy) headed into a critical rematch against the first-place Tigers on Saturday needing a senior night win to have a chance at snatching the last remaining Ivy Madness qualifying spot on the final day of the season.
Despite making an epic second half comeback to turn a 19-point Princeton lead into a one-point game, Harvard was unable to finish the job, eventually succumbing to their New Jersey foes and falling short of the Ivy League tournament for the second season in a row.
“I feel bad for our seniors, of course, missing an opportunity for them to win their last home game,” said Harvard head coach Tommy Amaker. “It seems like this has been a broken record, how much we put ourselves in a hole. We battled and it's admirable to say things like that, how far back we were and being able to come back, but every time we had a chance to push it and take the lead, put the pressure on them, we just never could really come through with it.”
The Crimson started off the game with a poor first-half display. Despite creating as many shooting chances as their rivals, Harvard shot 7-for-28 from the field, an offensive disaster topped only by an 8.3% (1-for-12) three point conversion rate. With the Tigers piling in shots on 53% field goal shooting and five well-timed three pointers, the Crimson were torn apart defensively and stumbled into halftime at the bottom of a 14-point hole.
The first three minutes of the second half suggested that things might get worse for Harvard, as Princeton scored five unanswered points to complete a 10-point run and take a 19 point lead.
However, in a fight-or-flight response, the Crimson dug in and started to generate offense. In a little over two minutes, sophomore guard Evan Nelson knocked down three consecutive three-point attempts. Senior guard Idan Tretout then hit two free throws and a layup before senior forward Chris Ledlum added one more to cut the deficit to just five points with over nine minutes to play.
Princeton made a few shots and attempted to slow the Crimson momentum, but with six minutes on the clock Harvard drew within two-points of the Tigers. The tension in Lavietes pavilion had reached a peak. As the crowd urged the Crimson forward, it felt as if the team had six minutes to make or break an Ivy League season, with little time left to stay in playoff contention and avoid a 5th consecutive home defeat.
Time and time again, Harvard pushed for a game-tying basket, a chance to draw level and force Princeton to take risks. Amaker reflected on the spirited push after the game.
“We had great opportunities to do it,” Amaker said. “I just told our guys, I said ‘we had our chances.’ There’s no other way of saying it. When you do [come back from 19 points down] you have to complete it and finish it.”
With three minutes left, the Crimson forced a turnover underneath their own basket and surged up the court. Quick passing created an opportunity for Tretout to let loose an open three from the edge of the arc. The shot missed, but Ledlum anticipated the bounce and rebounded the ball out to Nelson for a second open three-point attempt. Nelson’s shot missed again, but this time Tretout rebounded, slinging the ball back to Nelson for the Crimson’s third three-point attempt in an eight second span. As the Harvard bench stood up in anticipation of a swishing net, the ball rolled around the rim, almost teasingly, before spilling out of the basket.
Against all odds, Harvard secured the offensive rebound again, this time via a jumping Ledlum, whose attempted tip-in, from no more than a foot shy of the basket, went wide. The collective sigh of the home crowd summed up the night’s frustrations.
Princeton senior guard Ryan Langborg reflected on the Harvard run post-game. “I think we had to move a little more on offense,” Langborg said. “We got a little stagnant, but at the end of the day that’s something we’ve got to work on.”
After Nelson brought the Crimson within one point of the Tigers with ten seconds remaining, Princeton closed out the game with some smart tactics, first making two free-throws and then immediately fouling, forcing the Crimson to the free-throw line and preventing one last opportunity for a game-tying three pointer.
When asked after the game about the passion and spirit Harvard demonstrated in the second half, coach Amaker highlighted that it takes a consistent performance to win a game.
“We’re very proud of that, but we also know that it's a 40 minute game,” Amaker said. “Looking at the production of key guys for our team, it [was always] going to be very hard.”
In his final home game, Ledlum was held quiet, at least by his lofty standards. Coming off of a career-high 35 point game against Cornell (16-10, 6-7 Ivy), Ledlum struggled against the Tigers, going 5-for-19 on field goals and 0-for-7 from three, but still putting up 14 points and 14 rebounds.
Ledlum has carried the Crimson this season, consistently proving himself as the best player on the court and leading the team game after game. Ledlum’s off game proved difficult for Harvard to overcome, as Amaker pointed out after the game.
“Not putting it on him or anything, but it’s just the way he’s carried us,” Amaker said. “When he's had good offensive production, and efficiency, we've been a much better team and when he hasn't, like this afternoon, it's been hard for us.”
One game away from the conclusion of an impressive Harvard career, Ledlum is eligible to play another year of college ball, although it must be outside of the Ivy League.
Princeton now sit tied for first place in the league, with the opportunity to clinch first-seed with a win on the final day and a Yale (19-7, 9-4 Ivy) loss. When asked about how it felt to end Harvard’s season on its home court senior day for the second season running, Langborg answered enthusiastically.
“It’s great,” Langborg said after the game. “My dad went to Yale so I’ve grown up with a dislike for Harvard, let's just say that.”
Langborg also expressed his optimism for the upcoming Ivy Madness tournament, which offers a NCAA March Madness tournament bid for the winning team. This year Princeton will be hosting the tournament on its home court.
“We feel great,” Langborg said. “We trust in our abilities and in each other. We’ve got a really tight group this year, so no one is beating us and we’re happy the Ivy tournament is coming to Princeton.”
Senior co-captain Luka Sakota watched senior night from the bench, unable to participate because of an injury. Fellow senior forward Tommy O’Neil also played his last home game for the Crimson alongside Ledlum and Tretout.
Despite the lingering loss, the post-game senior night festivities at Lavities honored the contributions of Harvard’s four graduating seniors, whose families were in attendance for the game.
Harvard will officially close out its season with an away game at Dartmouth next Saturday 3/4 at 2:00pm.
— Staff writer Alex Bell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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