PHILADELPHIA — As time ticked away and the Penn faithful stood up inside the Palestra, coach Tommy Amaker glanced in dismay at the scoreboard as Harvard men’s basketball was losing another terribly close game – falling to the Quakers by an 82-74 margin.
For the third straight game and the fourth time in five games, the Crimsons (11-10, 3-6 Ivy) made a comeback in a critical game, tying the score in Philadelphia with less than two minutes to play. After losing three games to Ivy rivals by a combined 10 points – one to Penn at Cambridge and back-to-back losses to Yale – finishing Saturday’s comeback at the Ivy League’s premier venue would have gone a long way in reversing the fortunes of Harvard this season. A series of clutch shots by guard Jordan Dingle, including a banked three-pointer as the shot clock expired, ensured the Crimson would lose yet another heartbreaker.
“You’ve got to give them credit, and you’ve got to give him credit in particular,” Amaker said of Dingle’s 33-point performance, which came just 15 days after the runner-up scored 31 at Lavietes Pavilion. to lead Penn. (11-12, 8-2) for a 78-74 win at Cambridge. “We need something to fall a little in our way, that’s no excuse or anything, but you need it.”
Amaker’s remarks echo the frustration that many involved in the men’s basketball program are sure to feel, as Harvard sits sixth in the Ivy League with just five games remaining. The past two weeks have brought four razor’s edge losses, leaving the Crimson on the brink of despair in the battle for an Ivy League playoff berth.
With Lavietes Pavilion set to host this year’s Ancient Eight tournament, failing to finish the season in the top four and qualify for the semifinals would leave a particularly sour taste in the men’s basketball program given its recent history. in the Ivy League playoffs. Harvard has lost the last two Ivy League Championship games in real road conditions and has long looked forward to hosting the tournament in Cambridge after missing the chance to do so in 2020 due to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Saturday afternoon’s game featured the kind of seesaw action the Crimson are well used to in battles with coach Steve Donohue’s Penn Quakers. Harvard recovered from an eight-point second-half deficit, thanks in large part to inspired play by freshman guard Evan Nelson, who led the team in scoring. Nelson scored a career-high 19 points, drilling his five three-pointers and getting the Crimson back in the game numerous times as the Quakers looked to pull away.
“It’s a lot of fun to play at the Palestra, it’s obviously a coveted and historic arena,” Nelson said. “But it would have been much better to get that win, no doubt.”
Nelson’s play was all the more crucial with fellow freshman Louis Lesmond’s continued absence from the rotation due to injury, the latest in a never-ending string of injuries Harvard has faced this season. His resurgence is perhaps even more needed as a scoring capable third guard alongside junior Luka Sakota and senior Noah Kirkwood, as both have borne the brunt of defensive attention from opposing teams in recent weeks. The Canadian backcourt duo were forced to work extremely hard for high quality looks with Lesmond, Chris Ledlum and Idan Tretout sidelined with various injuries, combining for 26 points against Penn’s defense which seemed determined to neutralize them.
Donohue and Penn used a variety of defensive tactics on Saturday, including doubling Kirkwood on the final play of halftime, clearing a defender away from freshman goaltender Denham Wojcik. Wojcik, who has played Coach Amaker’s starting point guard in all but one of Harvard’s Ivy League games, has struggled to find his shooting touch so far, converting on 22% of his field goals and just 2 of 21 from beyond the arc.
Nelson’s emergence as a viable scoring threat and potential starter could be just what the Crimson need, especially to take on some of the scoring burden Kirkwood and Sakota have carried in the backcourt thus far. The Tucson, Ariz., native has credited the leadership of older players as a source of mentorship and confidence in him, with Saturday afternoon’s contest representing just the eighth game of Nelson’s young career.
“It’s definitely a team thing,” Nelson said. “From Spencer to Noah, Mason and Kale, all of these guys have taken it upon themselves to take me under their wing.”
Although Nelson’s prolific scoring on Saturday was an encouraging sign, time is running out for men’s basketball. With a two-game homestand against the New York Schools coming up, anything short of a 2-0 weekend would almost certainly knock Harvard out of the Ivy League tournament. Perhaps this is how the NCAA tournament drought should end for the Crimson: not with a No. 1 seed and a clear path to Ivy Madness, but through what essentially amounts to playoff games starting at mid-February.
“You know, it’s definitely disappointing,” Amaker said of the team’s recent tight losing streak. “But it didn’t demoralize us.”
Harvard certainly hasn’t given up so far, even after back-to-back heartbreaking losses. Players like second Sam Silverstein, senior captain Kale Catchings and others have shown a willingness to fill unexpected spots due to injury. But with March looming, the road to making the tournament is certainly long, and the Crimson’s chances may be even longer. But an unbeaten weekend against Columbia and Cornell – the team Harvard is chasing – would provide a much-needed jolt the Crimson after three straight no-chance losses. In Ancient Eight basketball, anything is possible.
Perhaps Nelson will be the spark. Or Kirkwood, who has taken the team on his shoulders several times this season and recently scored his 1,000th point for Harvard men’s basketball. Or an unexpected hero – maybe another Sakota buzzer-beater. But with the Ivy League tournament less than a month away, there’s suddenly very little room for error.
— Writer Amir Mamdani can be reached at [email protected] You can follow him on Twitter at @AmirMamdani22.