The Breakdown: Harvard’s defense snaps drought at Princeton

Harvard_Princeton_basketball_Jadwin_Gymnasium_Feb22With eight minutes left in Saturday night’s game at Jadwin Gymnasium, Princeton trailed Harvard 41-40, and the Tigers’ Hans Brase was here:

Hans_Brase_dunk_attemptScreencap via the Ivy League Digital Network

At that point, it was hard to imagine that Princeton would never lead for the rest of the game, but that’s exactly what happened: Brase missed his wide-open dunk and Brandyn Curry drilled a three-pointer on the other end in the game’s defining mood swing. But what came afterward was just as important — Princeton’s once-potent offense managed only three points in seven minutes before garbage time, giving Harvard its first win at Jadwin in a quarter-century.

Over those seven minutes, the Tigers went 1-for-7 from the field — mostly on three-pointers — and committed four turnovers in one of their ugliest stretches of the season:

Princeton_Harvard_shooting_chart_2H_Jadwin_GymnasiumExcludes final minute of garbage time.

Harvard has been great at forcing turnovers for several years, and its 16 takeaways were critical in the first meeting in Cambridge. But Harvard’s pressure wasn’t really responsible for the Tigers’ miscues down the stretch — all four were unforced errors, ranging from Pete Miller dribbling the ball off his foot to Clay Wilson dropping a backdoor pass.

Instead, Harvard played a more conservative style of defense, denying Princeton’s signature backdoor cuts (which killed the Crimson in the first half) while also mostly contesting the three-point line.

“Our normal way of guarding is to get out and pressure,” Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said, per the Harvard Crimson. “That is the calling card of our program, but we need to adjust sometimes, and our adjustment there served us well to pull back and keep [cutting players] in front.”

Spencer Weisz halved the Tigers’ deficit with a wide, wide open three-pointer at the six-minute mark, and after a blocked shot on the other end, Princeton had the ball in a one-possession game. But Weisz forced another trey — one that was much better contested and came from a step further away — and missed. With the shot clock winding down, Wesley Saunders retaliated with just his ninth three-pointer of the season, jump-starting an 11-0 run that ended Harvard’s streak of Jadwin futility and foiled the ESPN curse.

“In the second half, we just got a little lazy on offense and defense,” Princeton guard T.J. Bray said. “We weren’t cutting as sharp on offense. We got a few backdoor layups in the first half that kind of opened the game for us, and we weren’t able to get those in the second half.”

The next day, Columbia hammered Yale 62-46, knocking the Bulldogs into second place, a game behind the Crimson. Harvard hosts the Lions and Cornell this weekend before visiting New Haven on the final weekend of Ivy play, while the Bulldogs first have to make the same Princeton-Penn trip that the Crimson just conquered. Princeton and Penn might both be down this season, but sweeping them on the road is never an easy task — but Yale might have to do just that to keep control of its own destiny.

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2 Responses to The Breakdown: Harvard’s defense snaps drought at Princeton

  1. tigerclarkc says:

    Best analysis, hurtful as it may be, that I have read. The Tigers’ failure to execute after the stunning Brase miss is hard to take, if easy to understand. Kudos to Amaker for his adjustments from which the Tigers failed to react. If someone told me before the game that we would hold Saunders to 7, that freshman Weisz would shut Rivard out (did he ever go 34 minutes w/o scoring?) and that Harvard as a team would score 59, I would have said, “We win!” Of course, I’d have been wrong. Yale’s collapse in NYC is even more shocking. Good luck in the tournament, Crimson. You’ve earned it.

  2. Kevin Whitaker continues to impress me as one of the most insightful and unbiased analysts of college basketball. Here, for example, he shows his ability to plunge incisively into a morass of data, pointing out with clarity how this game was both won (by Harvard) and lost (Princeton, by his alma mater) without the slightest tinge of bias.

    Whether the Crimson does go on to the NCAA Tournament or it’s someone else, I’ll look forward to reading Mr. Whitaker’s future analyses.

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