After a slow exam week without much basketball, three teams returned to action with compelling games Saturday. More will come on Boston University’s upset of Maryland and Northeastern’s 20-point comeback over UW-Milwaukee in the next few days; for today, a story from Harvard’s surprisingly close call against Vermont.
With 11:23 to play in Saturday’s game against Vermont, Harvard was in real trouble. In its first game back from a two-week exam break, the Crimson had seen a 23-8 lead slowly evaporate; now it trailed 47-45 after a Sandro Carissimo three-pointer gave Vermont its first lead since 1-0. Perhaps more importantly, star guard Wesley Saunders had just been called for his fourth foul (three of which came on the offensive end), sending him to the bench with a rare case of foul trouble.
Left on the court were Siyani Chambers, Agunwa Okolie, Laurent Rivard, Jonah Travis and Evan Cummins, a seemingly eclectic set of players. Before Saturday, that quintet had played together only once this season — a nondescript, 86-second stint in Harvard’s last game at BU. Suffice to say, few expected them to play crunch-time minutes together this year: Chambers and Rivard were mainstays of last year’s lineup, but Okolie entered the season as maybe Harvard’s fifth-best guard, and Travis and Cummins appeared to be something like fourth and sixth in the frontcourt rotation.
But head coach Tommy Amaker stuck with them — and it paid off. After a free throw stretched Vermont’s lead to three points, Chambers found Travis under the basket for an easy layup; on the next possession, Chambers took back the lead with a three-pointer from the right wing. Harvard held Vermont scoreless while Travis made a foul shot, Chambers hit a teardrop floater, Travis hit two more free throws and Chambers swished a step-back three over Josh Elbaum. All told: Six possessions, 13 straight points and a 58-48 lead.
By the time of Harvard’s next substitution, Harvard had a nine-point advantage, and the trouble had faded. When that lead shrunk to six at the four-minute mark, Amaker called a timeout and immediately returned to the Chambers-Okolie-Rivard-Travis-Cummins lineup; within 90 seconds, the Crimson was again up by double digits. For the game, those five played 11 minutes together, in which Harvard outscored Vermont 24-9. (In the remaining 29 minutes, Vermont had a 59-50 edge.)
Chambers was the Crimson’s unquestioned star Saturday. Through 10 games, he was shooting just 28 percent from three-point range — 14 points below his freshman season— but he went 6-for-6 from distance against Vermont and shot 9-for-10 overall, scoring a career-high 27 points. He added three assists and two steals, and with Saunders ineffective and Kyle Casey often on the bench, Chambers initiated most of Harvard’s offense late in the second half.
But he wasn’t the only key member of Harvard’s new lineup. Travis, as always, had key rebounds and got good post position on offense; Cummins played smart pick-and-roll defense and set up one of Travis’ drawn fouls with a rarely seen drive and pass from the wing. Most importantly, Okolie completely bottled up Carissimo, who scored a game-high 30 points but missed his only shot and committed a turnover during the Crimson’s game-deciding run.
Despite Saturday’s heroics, don’t expect this to be Harvard’s crunch-time lineup too often going forward. For one thing, it puts a ton of pressure on Chambers to be Harvard’s playmaker; if better defensive teams focus on stopping him and Travis, they’ll take away most of the Crimson’s offense. For another, that lineup leaves some pretty good players on the bench: Saunders looked out of sorts on Saturday, but he’s still probably the best player in the Ivy League, and Casey, Steve Moundou-Missi and (when healthy) Brandyn Curry and Kenyatta Smith are all very talented as well.
But Saturday’s success shows that Harvard is still a very deep team, even with two key injuries. So if Saunders has another poor game in the future, or if Casey and Moundou-Missi get into foul trouble, Amaker now has yet another lineup that he can be confident in — one optimized for defense and for careful offensive possessions. (In 16 possessions Saturday, this quintet didn’t turn the ball over once.) If Amaker chooses his rotations wisely, Harvard can match up with almost any team.