At Lavietes Pavilion on Wednesday night, Harvard and Northeastern might as well have been playing a kids’ game: The paint on each end was land, and the rest of the court was made of lava.
Of the 106 total points scored by the Crimson and Huskies, 88 came from the paint or the free-throw line (via fouls drawn almost exclusively in the paint). Both teams fed their post players early and often, while their strong perimeter defenders denied opponents space for outside shots. The result was a 58-possession slog that was decided near the basket — where Harvard was better, leading wire-to-wire for a 60-46 victory.
Harvard’s most decorated players might be guards, but coach Tommy Amaker has always maintained that the Crimson runs an inside-out offense. Eight of their first nine possessions ended in the paint, with many featuring Kenyatta Smith against reigning CAA Defensive Player of the Year Scott Eatherton. Eatherton caused a turnover on the first play, but Smith soon beat the Huskies’ star for two easy layups and forced two misses on the other end, helping the Crimson jump out to a 10-0 lead.
Smith missed nearly all of last season with a foot injury and came off the bench to start this year, but he now seems back in top form, scoring 11 points with seven rebounds against UMass and controlling the paint defensively against Eatherton and the Huskies. The senior blocked four shots on Wednesday, and when he was on the court, Northeastern scored just 15 points in 17 minutes.
If there was an issue with Smith’s play, it was the denominator of that statistic — he was in foul trouble throughout the game, forcing him to spend more time on the bench than off it. A few of his infractions on Wednesday were iffy, but fouls are not a new issue for Smith, now averaging 6.8 per 40 minutes this season. The center’s block rate is prodigious (11.7%, top 30 nationally), but it often comes at the expense of flying off his feet for shot-fakes. “We need him to be aggressive, but also to be a little bit smarter,” Amaker said.
After Corbin Miller’s three-pointer capped a 19-6 opening run, the Crimson stagnated offensively, making just two shots over the final 11:30 of the half. Star guard Wesley Saunders, among the nation’s scoring leaders, had zero points at intermission.
“When people came up and set a pick, they were leaving a big up to create a little pocket I couldn’t get out of,” Saunders said. “They were just trying to clog up the lane and not let me get any penetration.”
It didn’t take long for Saunders to break out of his 20-minute slump. After a T.J. Williams three-pointer cut the lead to two points coming out of halftime, Saunders drew and made two free throws, deflected a pass for a turnover at the other end, and scored on a layup to give Harvard some breathing room. The senior ultimately finished with a team-high 12 points (and five steals), none more jaw-dropping than an up-and-under layup in which he was airborne for an eternity, cradling the ball in softly off the glass.
The Crimson’s fitful offense was only a minor concern because of its team-wide defensive performance. With Steve Moundou-Missi, Evan Cummins and Zena Edosomwan joining Smith in defending the rim, Harvard’s guards were free to pester Huskies on the perimeter. Northeastern, whose hot start to the season was fueled largely by outside shooting, hit just two shots from outside the paint all game (making Harvard’s five seem like a relative bounty). “It’s definitely a big confidence boost when those guys are back there cleaning up shots,” Saunders said. “You can pressure the ball, knowing that if you get beat or anything, they’ll have your back.”
The Huskies’ one strength offensively came on the glass, where they grabbed 15 of their 31 misses, leading to 19 second-chance points. Eatherton finished with 16 points, while Reggie Spencer added 10 and eight rebounds. But David Walker, defended mainly by Saunders, managed only three points, while Quincy Ford was scoreless on 0-for-9 shooting.
“They kind of wore us down with their numbers,” Northeastern coach Bill Coen said. “We made a couple runs at them, but their defensive pressure was the key to the game.”
Harvard is now on a four-game win streak after its early loss to Holy Cross, and most of those victories have been convincing. With a tough game at Vermont this weekend, followed later in the month by showdowns at Virginia and Arizona State, it’s a good time for the Crimson to be rising.