Vermont 65, Harvard 62: Setbacks Plague Crimson

2015 ended so well for Harvard: The Crimson won four of their final six games, with only close losses to the likely #1 and #2 in tomorrow’s national rankings. November’s struggles were a distant memory, and they looked ready to challenge for yet another Ivy League title.

But the first game of 2016 was a downer for the Crimson. Vermont took control in the second half and held on for a 65-62 victory, handing Harvard only its third non-conference loss at Lavietes Pavilion in the last six seasons. And the hosts were hit by injuries that they cannot afford with the start of Ivy play looming.

Forward Patrick Steeves did not dress Sunday due to a leg injury he suffered against Wofford three days earlier. And midway through the first half, point guard Tommy McCarthy limped to the locker room with what was diagnosed as a hyper-extended right knee. McCarthy later returned to the bench with an ice pack, but he did not play again.

Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said he did not have a timetable for either player’s return, but hoped to have them back soon.

Steeves and McCarthy play different positions, but they share one skill that Harvard can’t replace — the ability to penetrate off the dribble. Agunwa Okolie can get to the rim, but he scores best when catching the ball on cuts. Andre Chatfield has returned to the rotation after recovering from his own injuries, but he is a defense-first player for now.

Without Steeves and McCarthy, Harvard’s top perimeter threats are Corbin Miller and Corey Johnson. Both are great shooters, and both can hit pull-up jumpers off the dribble, but neither is a threat to drive to the rim:

Corbin_Miller_Corey_Johnson_Harvard_shooting_2015-16

Includes D-1 opponents only; no video available for Providence game

Miller hasn’t attempted a single shot inside 10 feet this season; Johnson has taken only six. The two have drawn a combined 11 free throws in 14 games. Without a player who can scramble defenses from the perimeter, the Crimson will struggle to score consistently.

Harvard and Vermont have developed one of the best rivalries in the Northeast; this meeting marked the fifth game in as many years decided by single digits or overtime. Three more thoughts from Lavietes Pavilion:

1. Watch out for the Catamounts? Balanced scoring has defined Vermont all year, and Sunday’s game was no exception. Ethan O’Day led the team with 16 points on 17 shots, often besting prep school teammate Evan Cummins. Despite a hard fall just before halftime, redshirt freshman Ernie Duncan added 14, including a corner trey with four minutes left for the Catamounts’ final, game-deciding points. Trae-Bell Hynes was a bit below his season-leading average, but his five steals led directly to four fast-break buckets.

Vermont has now won four of its last five games, including three wins over teams in KenPom’s top 120 (UC Santa Barbara, Siena, Harvard). The Catamounts still trail Stony Brook and Albany in KenPom’s ratings — mirroring the preseason coaches’ poll — but there’s a big gap between the top three and the rest of the league. Vermont’s first meeting with both contenders is at home (where it’s 5-0 this season), so if it can hold serve in those games, it could be near the top of the standings until the end.

2. Vermont executed its defensive plan perfectly. Every team tries to deny Zena Edosomwan the ball, but the Catamounts did so more effectively than anyone else to date. They forced five turnovers in the first five minutes by fronting the junior in the post, picking off difficult entry lobs from the Crimson. And they double-teamed quickly, closing off lanes before Edosomwan could show off his improved passing skills. He took only six shots Sunday, finishing with eight points and three turnovers.

“I think a big part of their game plan was not letting me try to score at all,” Edosomwan said. “Any place I caught the ball, they would double-team to get the ball out of my hands. They did a great job.”

3. Will Corbin Miller need to be a full-time point guard? Backup point guard Matt Fraschilla suffered a season-ending injury in November, so if McCarthy is sidelined for any longer, Miller will slide over from shooting guard to run the show. Despite the caveats above, the junior has looked comfortable as a ball-handler this year, especially when playing alongside another playmaker. “Corbin is a guy that settles our offense, he settles our team,” Amaker said. “He’s a very respected guy in our program, so we look at him as a leader. So handling the ball for us, running our team, being our quarterback comes naturally in that regard.”

But running the point for 40 minutes is difficult for anyone, and Harvard is running out of backup options. Chatfield spelled Miller for only three possessions Sunday, which ended in two turnovers and a missed shot.

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