A Perfect Storm
Photograph courtesy of Harvard Athletic Communications
Photograph courtesy of Harvard Athletic Communications
Princeton senior Steven Cook called it a “perfect miss.”
To the Harvard men’s basketball team, it was more of a perfect storm.
With seven ticks remaining in Saturday’s game at Lavietes Pavilion, Cook’s teammate, sophomore guard Myles Stephens—who had just hit a layup and drawn a blocking foul—waited at the free throw line, with the Tigers trailing 56-55.
Stephens eyed the basket, spun the ball in his hands, and took two dribbles before launching the shot.
To the relief of Crimson fans, the ball sprang off the rim to the right, not far from where Tigers head coach Mitch Henderson had positioned Will Gladson, his six-foot-ten freshman center. But it was Cook, who was stationed on the left block, who anticipated the carom, evaded Justin Bassey ’20 (who had just fouled Stephens), and leaped across the lane to secure the rebound. As Cook recalled, there were a “frantic” couple of seconds in the lane before he put the ball off the backboard for the decisive shot in Princeton’s 57-56 victory.
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The last-second turn-of-events dampened an otherwise impressive weekend in which the Crimson upended Penn 69-59, senior point guard Siyani Chambers excelled, and the team was surprisingly effective against the Quakers’ and Tigers’ 1-3-1 zone defenses. Still, that the Crimson (now 12-7 overall, 4-2 Ivy) failed to close out Saturday’s game provided a concerning reminder that this talented but young team needs to mature quickly.
Chambers Takes the Lead
Following last weekend’s 65-62 loss at Columbia, the whispers had started. Some felt that Chambers—a senior co-captain and three-time all-conference honoree—had cost the Crimson the game.
The criticism was understandable. Chambers went 0-8 from the field against the Lions and missed a three-pointer that would have tied the game at the buzzer. At that point, he was only shooting 31 percent from the field on the season. Even though he was leading the team in assists, the possibility seemed to loom that, if Chambers had a few more bad games, Stemberg head coach Tommy Amaker might start bringing his senior point guard off the bench behind freshman point guard Bryce Aiken, the team’s leading scorer.
This past weekend, Chambers eliminated those doubts. He shot the ball better (making eight of 18 field goal attempts); led the Crimson in scoring on both nights, with 13 points against Penn and 17 against Princeton; and exhibited impressive attention to detail and composure. In particular, he had six assists and no turnovers against the Quakers and had five steals and made 13 of 14 free throw attempts across the two games.
He also made one of the most important momentum plays of the weekend. With a little under five minutes remaining against Penn on Friday, the Quaker’s Darnell Foreman drove to the basket and appeared to get by Chambers. But the Harvard point guard stole the ball and jetted off on a fast break. As he neared the basket, he slowed and made a jump-stop (to land on both feet) before shooting. That meant, Amaker explained later, that Chambers was balanced enough to absorb the contact from the defender behind him, draw the foul, and still take a good shot. Amaker also praised Chambers for shooting the ball high off the glass, which increased the likelihood it would fall in the basket. The result was a three-point play (Chambers sank the free throw) that gave the Crimson its first two-possession lead of the game.
The sequence also provided a timely reminder of what makes Chambers so integral to the team’s success: he has experience playing and staying composed in big games. For a team that relies so heavily on freshmen, that presence is invaluable.
Another bright sign this weekend was Harvard’s improved offense.
Both Penn and Princeton played a 1-3-1 zone defense, in which a team positions one player near the basket, three players near the free throw line, and a fifth player on the perimeter. The intent is to trap a ball handler in the corner, force turnovers, and disrupt its rival’s offense. During Harvard’s 1-4 start to the season, several opponents—Holy Cross and George Washington in particular—flummoxed the Crimson with this approach; the Crusaders, in fact, held Amaker’s team to a season-low 52 points and forced 19 turnovers. As the coach lamented after that game, the Crimson were “disjointed offensively” and “tentative” against the zone.
This weekend, they were markedly improved. The Crimson’s guards—especially Chambers—attacked the gaps in the zone off the dribble, which allowed them to get shots near the basket or cause the defense to collapse. This freed up the team’s perimeter shooters. Harvard also made effective in-game adjustments. Against Princeton, Amaker signaled to Chambers that he should try lobbing the ball over the defense to Lewis on the baseline. One play later, he did just that, resulting in a tip-in for two points. More broadly, the Crimson played with more poise—likely an outcome of the fact, as Justin Bassey explained, that Harvard’s coaches have had their players practicing their offensive execution against a zone.
Still, the Crimson—particularly the freshmen—need to learn to close out games in conference play. Down the stretch against Princeton, Lewis missed two key free throws, Bassey did the wrong thing in fouling Stephens, and the team failed to grab the ensuing rebound. The Tigers remained poised and found a way to win.
To some extent, this steadiness can come only from experience. As Steven Cook explained, he and his teammates (the Tigers have three senior starters) remained confident even when they fell behind, because they’d been in that situation before. Harvard’s freshmen, in contrast, are not even halfway through their first Ivy campaign.
The long view suggests that having these talented first-years gain this experience now bodes well for the future. At halftime on Friday, one Harvard basketball alumnus quoted the late Marquette head coach, Al McGuire, who said, “The best thing about freshmen is that they become sophomores.”
But this team is focused on the present, and has just eight more conference games in which to qualify and prepare for the inaugural Ivy League basketball tournament at the Palestra in March. The Crimson must be able not only to win high-stakes contests, but learn to do so away from the friendly confines of Lavietes Pavilion.
Harvard will get more practice this coming weekend, when it travels to Brown and then Yale, which currently sits in second place in the conference—ahead of the Crimson by one game.
Tidbits: Before Friday night’s game against Penn, athletics director Bob Scalise presented Tommy Amaker with a ball commemorating the team’s victory over Boston College earlier this year, when Amaker became the winningest coach in men’s program history. Following Saturday night’s game, Harvard men’s basketball alumni and several of Amaker’s former assistants gathered in the Murr Center to celebrate the coach’s accomplishments. In a telephone interview last week, Will Wade, an early Amaker assistant at Harvard and now head men’s basketball coach at Virginia Commonwealth University, lauded his former boss for establishing a clear vision, goals, standards, and identity at the start of his tenure and then following through so successfully during the past decade.
The women’s basketball team also had a disappointing weekend, losing 63-43 at Penn on Friday night and falling to Princeton 63-58 in overtime on Saturday. The losses marked the end of the team’s 16-game winning streak, tied for the longest in program history. Head coach Kathy Delaney-Smith’s squad (now 16-3 overall, 4-2 Ivy) hosts Brown and Yale next weekend and will have an opportunity to avenge its losses to the Quakers and Tigers in the final weekend of the regular season in March.