Basketball is a funny sport to analyze. Over the past four months, we’ve all spent countless hours debating Harvard and Yale as championship contenders. This week, Ray and I exchanged 1,500 words previewing Friday’s matchup. And ultimately, the de facto title game — and the biggest Ivy League contest in four years, a college generation — was decided in large part by who made their three-pointers that night.
Playing at home with a chance to secure its fifth straight Ivy title, Harvard went just 2-17 from three-point range. The Crimson hasn’t been very prolific from beyond the arc all year, but their shots against Yale came mostly from their best shooters in good positions. Corbin Miller, a career 41% shooter from distance, went 0-8 on Friday. Siyani Chambers, 37% for his career, went 1-6. With the exception of two heaves late in the shot clock, most of Harvard’s attempts were open and in rhythm.
Meanwhile, Yale went 7-16 from beyond the arc, even though top shooter Jack Montague was bottled up for most of the game.
As if to underscore basketball’s randomness, Yale forward Justin Sears made his first two three-pointers of the year — both awkward line drives that snuck over the rim — at the best possible time.
“I thought we had a ton of shots. We just didn’t make them. I don’t know what else to say,” Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said.
None of that means Yale didn’t deserve to win. The Bulldogs put themselves in position to take advantage of Harvard’s drought, scoring 1.05 points per possession against the league’s best defense. Javier Duren constantly frustrated the Crimson, getting his 22 points on a combination of tough floaters and three-pointers, including a dagger from 23 feet in the final two minutes.
On the other end, the Bulldogs sent double-teams aggressively on the perimeter and in the post, which paid off when Harvard’s big men didn’t make the right passes. Zena Edosomwan played only nine minutes after missing four early shots in the face of Yale pressure.
Still, if Miller makes two or three of his treys, and if Chambers hits another — bringing both in line with their career marks — then a 10-point margin becomes a toss-up. Miller in particular had a rough night: Chambers and Wesley Saunders found him time after time, in transition and from kick-outs, sticking with their guns even as Miller struggled (as they should). But the sophomore’s shots kept finding the top of the rim, as he missed eight treys and another long jumper.
“He’s our marksman, our three-point guy, and what a tough night for him. Of his nine shots, only one I know for sure was forced or a bad shot,” Amaker said. “Boy, did he get some looks that we would kill to have for him tomorrow night, and I know he’s going to be better than he was tonight.”
Harvard’s loss overshadowed a dominant game from Steve Moundou-Missi. As in the first meeting, Moundou-Missi kept Justin Sears quiet: Sears got only one shot at the rim, which came off his only offensive rebound, and needed his two surprising treys to reach 10 points. And on the other end, the senior attacked Sears fearlessly, scoring 21 points on a combination of face-up jumpers, physical drives and put-backs from 10 rebounds.
“He was one of the few people out there who really battled, and I think he left it all out there on the floor,” Saunders said. “He was trying to spark us and get us energized, but we never really caught on.”
Harvard trailed 22-19 at halftime — not much prettier than the 16-11 score in the first meeting — but Yale ballooned its lead to 12 points, thanks to second-chance points from Armani Cotton (who finished with 14) and Sears. The hosts made several small runs, but each was answered by the Bulldogs — an athletic putback and-one from Khaliq Ghani here, a patented Matt Townsend two-point jumper there. Duren was perfect on free throws down the stretch, slowly hammering the penultimate nail in Harvard’s coffin.
Harvard’s only path to a fifth straight Ivy title is a win over Brown tomorrow night and a Yale loss at Dartmouth. (The latter is hardly a longshot, as the Big Green has won five of its last six.) If that parlay hits, Harvard and Yale will play a rubber match at The Palestra next week to determine the automatic qualifier to the NCAA Tournament.
And though Friday’s loss was devastating, the Crimson has received help in the past. In 2012, they lost at home to Penn with two games remaining, avoiding a playoff only when Princeton beat the Quakers in the season finale. In 2013, they were swept at Princeton and Penn in early March, regaining control of their own destiny only when the Tigers were swept the following weekend.
So Harvard’s hopes for a fourth straight tournament bid are on life support. But they’re not dashed yet.
“We just have to take care of business tomorrow and see where the chips fall,” Saunders said. “Crazier stuff has happened.”