Northeastern Cruises Past Harvard

The first half of this game was weird, man.

Things went haywire 90 seconds in, when the shot clock at Harvard’s end of Matthews Arena malfunctioned. Two minutes of game time later, it was done for good; a second, portable clock was hauled out to the baseline, with the PA announcer counting down every time it reached 10.

Two motion-heavy offenses and three referees who zealously enforced the freedom-of-movement rules created more starts and stoppages, exacerbated by video reviews. After a 7pm tip, the first half didn’t finish until 8:08. The under-16 timeout was taken before 16:00, for pete’s sakes.

The gameplay itself was even weird. Harvard had established itself as a defensive club that struggled to put points on the board. Instead, the Crimson allowed 1.31 points per possession for the first 20 minutes. But they were still in the game thanks to an outburst of their own:

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The second half returned to recognizable basketball. Moments after hanging a banner to commemorate last year’s NCAA tournament appearance, Northeastern pulled into control with an 11-4 run, punctuated by a steal and a slam by senior leader David Walker. The hosts led by as many as 17 points before cruising to an 80-71 victory.

Northeastern hung its 2015 NCAA tournament banner in Matthews Arena at halftime of Wednesday's game.

Northeastern hung its 2015 NCAA tournament banner in Matthews Arena at halftime of Wednesday’s game.

Three more thoughts from Matthews Arena:

1. Northeastern is really good. Ten days ago I asked, who is the best team in Massachusetts this year? Now there’s no debate: Even after the graduation of center Scott Eatherton, these Huskies might be better than last year’s NCAA tournament team. They split a Miami doubleheader the weird way — losing to the Redhawks of Ohio, then upsetting the No. 15 Hurricanes of Florida — and are now 6-1 for the season with a top-100 KenPom ranking.

Walker has been a true star this season, averaging 19.9 points per game with a 134 offensive rating and burnishing his reputation for making clutch plays. He and Quincy Ford (16.7 ppg, 111 ORtg) are above-average three-point shooters, and they are always joined by another deep threat — usually two in bench units. Plus, the Huskies have length at most positions, helping them grab 36% of offensive rebounds while holding the Crimson to half that.

Northeastern entered the year as a second-tier contender in the CAA, but it’s been right there with Hofstra and William & Mary (each of which has its own win over an ACC team) as the most impressive squads so far this year. The Huskies will continue to be tested in the coming weeks — playing Stony Brook and North Carolia State, and getting a rare home game against Michigan State — so if December goes very well, they could even have a non-conference resume worthy of at-large consideration.

2. Harvard found new options… Perhaps the Crimson’s prettiest basket of the game came from a two-man set with Patrick Steeves and Weisner Perez:

No Harvard fan would’ve seen that play coming before the season. Steeves, a senior, sat out his first three seasons with injuries, and his first D-I appearance came only six days ago, in Harvard’s win over Bryant. Perez, a rookie, had seen action in every game this year, but had not made more than one shot in any of them.

They were both playmakers at Northeastern, however, scoring 11 points apiece in the first half. Their emergence will help a Harvard team that has been shallow so far this season — and their offensive abilities in particular will take some pressure off Zena Edosomwan and Tommy McCarthy, who have carried heavy loads this year. Both had lower usage rates on Wednesday, and they were more effective (9-12 shooting for Edosomwan, nine assists for McCarthy).

“I was pleased with the different combinations we were able to use. Weisener Perez gave us some really solid minutes as a freshman coming off the bench, and I thought we saw some steps forward from where we’d been,” Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said.

3. …out of necessity. Four of the Crimson’s five starters had two fouls by halftime, and foul trouble was the main reason Harvard had to go deeper into its bench. Northeastern’s offense and tight (and occasionally puzzling) refereeing were the primary culprits.

“They’re a team that has multiple ballhandlers and multiple playmakers, so it’s challenging to stay in front of them without fouling,” Amaker said. “We were trying, but they did a good job of attacking us, and that led their team to get to the foul line in the first half.”

Perimeter defense is an issue to watch for the Crimson going forward, especially as inexperienced players like Steeves and Perez get more time. Harvard has usually been able to keep one scorer contained — like Boston College’s Eli Carter, or Walker for most of Wednesday night — with Agunwa Okolie playing on the ball. But teams with other options can seek out mismatches elsewhere. For Northeastern, that was Ford, who had 22 points, and Devon Begley, who did this:

Harvard will face other teams with multiple playmakers — both in its tough non-conference slate, which continues with Saturday’s trip to Kansas, and against the likes of Princeton and Columbia in the Ivy League. For the Crimson to keep up their reputation, all of their perimeter defenders will have to get stops.

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