Entering Wednesday night’s game at Matthews Arena, the juiciest matchup seemed to be Northeastern’s paint offense against Harvard’s interior defense. The Huskies entered the game taking more than half their shots at the rim — a strategy that already felled Georgetown and nearly beat Florida State — setting up a nice challenge for a Harvard frontcourt that blocks a ton of shots but commits almost as many fouls.
In that battle, Northeastern earned a qualified victory. Forwards Scott Eatherton and Reggie Spencer combined for 33 points on 31 shooting attempts, Harvard only blocked three shots, and four Crimson forwards finished the game with a combined 16 fouls. But nearly everything else went Harvard’s way: the Crimson drew just as many fouls on Northeastern’s frontcourt and shot 57 percent for the game, pulling away in the second half for a 72-64 victory.
The Huskies established their offensive advantage right away: Eatherton backed down Steve Moundou-Missi and drew a foul on help defender Kyle Casey on the very first possession. Later on, pushing the tempo after a made basket, Eatherton drew an and-one foul on Moundou-Missi; just twenty seconds later, Moundou-Missi was called for a touch foul on Eatherton on the perimeter, putting Harvard in foul trouble at the 16:37 mark of the first half.
After that, the fouls slowed down, but the Huskies’ interior offense did not. Reggie Spencer wasn’t as physical going to the basket as Eatherton, but his mid-range jumper was working. Spencer scored 10 straight Northeastern points, bringing the Huskies within one point and setting the stage for T.J. Williams’ go-ahead fast-break layup at the eight-minute mark.
“We certainly felt that they were going to go inside,” Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said. “[Eatherton and Spencer] are two big, tough guys that played well and scored well against us, and we certainly knew we needed to play well in the post defensively.”
Eatherton, naturally, drew Casey’s second foul with 5:45 left in the period, but the Crimson forwards made it to halftime without any further trouble. Eatherton finished with his sixth double-double of the season, at 17 points and 11 rebounds — only four other players in the nation have at least six double-doubles — but he left even more points at the line: After making his first two foul shots, Eatherton hit just one of his final nine.
Harvard’s foul trouble returned quickly in the second half, though it wasn’t really induced by Northeastern’s post offense. On the Crimson’s third possession, Casey was called for an offensive foul; just seconds later, Moundou-Missi was whistled for holding a cutter off the ball. At the 11-minute mark, fouls were contagious yet again — Casey blocked an Eatherton shot but was called for a block on the body, and then Williams drove to the basket and drew a fourth foul on Moundou-Missi.
The two starting forwards combined for only five minutes for the remainder of the game — all Casey’s, before he fouled out with 70 seconds remaining — but the Crimson’s lead, which was 48-43 when Moundou-Missi drew his fourth foul, never dipped below five points for the rest of the game. Jonah Travis played a solid game off the bench, but perhaps more important was the play of Evan Cummins. Cummins (who you’ll read more about tomorrow) matched or set career highs with 21 minutes, 10 points and six rebounds while adding two of Harvard’s three blocks, including a swat of Eatherton in the final minute that landed in the second row of cheerleaders.
“What I really thought won the game for them was their frontcourt depth. Not too many teams have multiple bigs like Harvard has,” Northeastern coach Bill Coen said. “Their starting frontcourt had four fouls early in the second half … [but] they have the luxury, with Jonah Travis and Evan Cummins, to continue to play at a high level.”
Right when things seemed dire, with two forwards in foul trouble and more than 10 minutes remaining, the Crimson offense exploded. From that point through the three-minute mark of the second half, Harvard scored 21 points on 14 possessions, the last two coming when Siyani Chambers ran down the shot clock, blew past two defenders on a ballscreen and finished with an easy layup on the other side of the rim, ballooning the Crimson lead to a game-high 11 points.
Chambers finished with eight assists against three turnovers, while Casey and Wesley Saunders shared the team lead with 17 points apiece. For the game, the Crimson shot 57 percent from the floor and scored 72 points on 64 possessions, despite getting only six of 27 possible offensive rebounds — barely half their season rate of 41 percent.
“Harvard is one of the best passing teams I’ve seen in a long time. They run a tremendous motion offense,” Coen said. “They have a very confident group of players that have been tested in the NCAA tournament, and they know how to win close basketball games. We got the game to where it could go either way, and I think that experience showed.”
For Harvard, this is a very solid win — playing a frontcourt like Northeastern’s, on the road, with key players in foul trouble, is not an easy task, but the Crimson was in control throughout the second half. And for Northeastern, this goes down as another legitimately hard-fought loss to a great team, like their two previous games against VCU and Florida State. The Huskies’ 2-6 record may not be satisfying, but the way they’ve played so far, they should be strong in CAA play.