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Harvard Men’s Basketball Left Looking for Foothold After Third Straight Loss

Senior guard Chris Ledlum shoots high for a two-pointer in a 68-57 at-home loss to Yale last weekend. Ledlum recorded ten points total on the board and holds first place for the highest number of points on the team.
Senior guard Chris Ledlum shoots high for a two-pointer in a 68-57 at-home loss to Yale last weekend. Ledlum recorded ten points total on the board and holds first place for the highest number of points on the team. By Courtesy of Dylan Goodman/Harvard Athletics
By Alexander K. Bell, Crimson Staff Writer

A few short weeks ago, Harvard men’s basketball (12-11, 3-6 Ivy) was 3-3 in the Ivy League and fresh off of scoring a season-high 95 points in a scintillating 95-89 home victory over Cornell (15-7, 5-4 Ivy). The Crimson had yet to lose any back-to-back games against league opponents and maintained a strong defensive force.

After Saturday’s 68-65 loss to Brown (12-10, 5-4 Ivy), Harvard now sits seventh in the Ivy League and has lost three games in a row. Despite nearly completing several miraculous comebacks, the Crimson has nothing to show for its efforts and is left searching for answers.

HARVARD OUTPLAYED BY YALE, 68-57

The energetic band playing to a sold-out Lavietes Pavilion set the tone for a game that started at a frantic pace. With both teams desperate to assert their control, the stakes of a rivalry matchup were clear from tip-off. Yale (16-6, 6-3 Ivy) jumped out with an early lead with sophomore guard Bez Mbeng and senior forward EJ Jarvis, who scored a game-high 18 points against Harvard in a 58-54 victory on January 7th, demonstrating the Bulldogs’ physicality.

“They really took it to us in the paint,” head coach Tommy Amaker said. “The post guys for their team were aggressive early on the offensive glass. The points in the paint were an indication of the physicality and aggressiveness of their team, not just with their shooting, but with the offensive rebound opportunities.”

With six minutes gone, Harvard fought back to level the score at 9-9. That margin would not last long, as the Bulldogs immediately started to pull away. Yale’s direct, high-energy play seemed to overwhelm the Crimson. The physical presence of Jarvis in the paint proved a persistent pain for the Harvard defense and when shots were forced wide, Yale shot an impressive 5-for-9 (55.6%) first-half three-point rate – the defensive resilience that has defined Harvard’s play this season was being compromised by a relentless offensive performance by Yale.

On the other end of the court, Harvard struggled as well. From the three-point range, the Crimson didn’t make a single shot in the first half, going 0-for-5. In many games this season, Harvard has compensated for poor three-point shooting with dominance inside the paint, but against the Bulldogs, the Crimson shot 6-for-21 (28.6%) in the opening 20 minutes compared to their opponents 17-for-33 (51.5%). The result of a dismal first half for Harvard was a 17-point deficit at the break.

In order to give themselves any chance, the Crimson desperately needed a change in pace for the second half. Half-time sub, first-year guard Chandler Piggé, recorded a steal in Yale’s first possession, but as the shot clock ran down, senior guard Idan Tretout was forced to take a tough three-pointer which missed the rim, continuing Harvard’s three-point catastrophe.

Throughout the game, Harvard struggled to create quality shot opportunities, typically using the full-time allotted by the shot clock, yet still failing to consistently get points on the board.

“There’s an old saying ‘be quick but don’t hurry’,” Amaker said. “We looked and played like we were in a hurry. With the pressure rising we were trying to do things in a rush instead of being sharp and quick.”

Despite its poor play at times, the Crimson was an improved team in the second period and managed to cut a 19-point Bulldog lead to five with several minutes left in the game.

The game came to an inflection point with 1:40 left on the clock. Solid Harvard defense forced Yale sophomore guard John Poulakidas to take a deep three-pointer which wrapped around the rim before harmlessly being rebounded by the Crimson. Tretout then surged upcourt with intent, driving to the rim before faking a shot and pivoting to sling a pass back to senior co-captain Luka Sakota, who stood open on the edge of the three. A made shot would have brought the Crimson within three points of a lead at 62-60, but the ball bounced off the rim, keeping the deficit at 62-57.

“I was proud of our guys for giving great effort and giving it an opportunity to go our way in the second half.” Amaker reflected. “I thought we had a moment there (with Luka’s three). That would’ve been a big one for us to see how the game would’ve evolved.”

Yale scored all six of the remaining points in the game to win 68-57, condemning Harvard to a fourth consecutive defeat against the Bulldogs.

HARVARD COMEBACK FALLS JUST SHORT VS. BROWN, 68-65

Less than 24 hours after the conclusion of the Yale game, the Crimson took home court again for a Saturday-night matchup against Brown.

Harvard started quickly, getting points on the board within the opening five seconds with a layup from junior forward Justice Ajogbor. It immediately became clear that Brown had come to play as the Bears surged into a 10-2 lead through seven quick points from senior guard Paxson Wojcik.

Brown’s Wojcik remained a pain in the side of the Crimson throughout the game, recording a game-high 23 points and sinking several deep three-pointers while relentlessly driving at the Crimson defense. After the game, Wojcik reflected on his approach.

“They got us at home a couple of weeks ago so we knew we had to get them back,” Wojcik said. “They’re a great team, we knew it was gonna be a dog fight. I’m just proud of the way we played and came out with the win.”

At the end of the first half, the game was still neck-to-neck. A pair of Tretout free throws had the game tied at 26-26 before the Bears used the final five seconds to throw down another lay-up and reclaim a two-point lead.

What ultimately sealed Harvard’s fate was a span of six minutes in the second period. Harvard came out of the break playing positively, exchanging baskets with Brown and taking a 34-33 lead with 17:24 left in the game. The Crimson then suffered a rare defensive collapse in which Brown scored 16 consecutive points unanswered to make it a 15-point game.

“We put ourselves in a hole,” Amaker said after the game. “We did it last night and again tonight, and that’s not good for us. We don’t have the kind of firepower where we can blast our way out of it. We’re not that kind of offensive juggernaut where we can just go on a 16-0 run. That’s not who we’ve been and that’s not who we are.”

Despite its shortcomings, Harvard worked hard and got into a position to tie the game late on. With 6 seconds on the clock, Sakota hit a 3-pointer, and sophomore guard Evan Nelson immediately fouled Wojcik on the inbound, sending Wojcik to the free throw line with the opportunity to shoot two and put the game out of reach. Wojcik, however, only made one of two free throws, leaving the game within one shot of overtime with three seconds left on the clock.

In a desperate final attempt, first-year forward Chisom Okpara heaved the ball forward to senior forward Chris Ledlum who out-jumped two defenders to give himself a half-second to release a buzzer-beating three-point shot. As Lavietes Pavilion rose to its feet, the ball missed just wide, sending the Brown bench into celebration.

“Most of the time you get what you deserve and, in my opinion, we weren’t deserving of victory,” Amaker said. “We fought hard to try to get it and sometimes you can not deserve to win and still win and we were trying to make that happen, but obviously we’ll take it and try to get better from it.”

To make the Ivy Madness tournament at the end of the season, the Crimson will need to make use of their five remaining games to climb into the top four.

In that vein, Harvard will look to set themselves back on track when they host Penn next Saturday at 2:00 pm. On January 28th, the Crimson lost to the Quakers in an 83-68 battle in Philadelphia but now will play with an added sense of urgency. Penn (13-11, 5-4 Ivy) sits tied for third place behind Princeton (16-6, 7-2 Ivy) and Yale.

— Staff writer Alex Bell can be reached at alexander.bell@thecrimson.com.

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