A Season-Ending Sweep
Photograph by Gil Talbot/Harvard Athletic Communications
Photograph by Gil Talbot/Harvard Athletic Communications
Five years ago, on the final evening of the 2011 season, the Harvard men’s basketball team hosted the Princeton Tigers with a chance to win the Crimson’s first Ivy League championship. Behind 24 points from star Kyle Casey ’13, coach Tommy Amaker’s squad did just that, dismissing the Tigers 79-67 and beginning a run of five consecutive conference crowns.
When Harvard played Princeton in Cambridge on the penultimate night of this season last Friday, the Crimson (12-16, 4-8 Ivy heading into the contest) had no hope of winning a league title. But Harvard did have an opportunity to shake up the conference race by handing Princeton (which was 10-1 in Ivy play, half a game behind Yale) its second league defeat.
In fact, Harvard beat the Tigers 73-71—the team’s most impressive Ivy win. Paired with Saturday’s 74-56 drubbing of Pennsylvania, the victory shored up the legacy of this year’s senior class, highlighted the growth of Zena Edosomwan ’17, and began the conversation about what the team can accomplish—and how it might adapt—as it turns to next season.
The Senior Class
The men’s basketball class of 2016 has been part of some of the most momentous games in program history: the upset of New Mexico in the opening round of the 2013 NCAA tournament; the near miss against Michigan State in the round of 32 in the 2014 NCAAs; and last season’s 53-51 squeaker over Yale in an Ivy playoff that sent the Crimson to March Madness for the fourth straight year.
At first glance, the games this weekend seemed far less important, but the seniors played with their customary competitiveness. With less than two minutes to go and the team up by 18 against the Quakers on Saturday night, captain Evan Cummins ’16—who tallied six points and six rebounds—stood on the sideline, yelling defensive instructions to his younger teammates. Agunwa Okolie ’16—the team leader in scoring and steals in Ivy games—continued his outstanding play, pouring in 16 points to go along with nine boards against Penn, after scoring 12 points against the Tigers.
Yet the most valuable performance by a senior came from Patrick Steeves, who spent the previous three seasons sidelined by injuries. Against Princeton, he led all scorers with 25 points, including the game-winning free throws with just seven seconds to go. And on defense, he had the game’s biggest play: swatting away a Tigers shot in the final seconds to secure the upset.
Amaker often tells his players that the “last part has to be the strongest part.” For the class of 2016, that was absolutely the case.
The strength of next year’s season for the Class of 2017 will depend largely on whether Edosomwan can become more consistent. After playing sparingly in the previous weekend’s road trip to Yale and Brown, the junior big man registered a pair of double-doubles in the final home stand, notching 16 points and 14 rebounds against the Tigers and 11 points and 14 rebounds versus the Quakers.
His success against Penn was especially impressive because Penn’s starting center, Darien Nelson-Henry, is six-foot-eleven and weighs 265 pounds—and did not hesitate to use his body to establish offensive position and compete for rebounds. For Edosomwan, who is six-foot-nine and weighs 245 pounds, the challenge is to be aggressive enough to hold his own but not so physical that he gets lured into committing fouls. Against Penn, he nearly fell into that trap, getting whistled for a flagrant foul early in the second half. But that was his lone foul, while Nelson-Henry fouled out of the contest.
If Edosomwan can build on that performance, he could become the Ivy League’s best player next year. If not, the team may struggle to find consistency in conference play.
The Path Ahead
Next season does not hinge on Edosomwan alone. A number of story lines will shape the campaign: How effective will Siyani Chambers ’16 be after returning from an ACL injury? How will the team’s highly touted recruiting class be integrated into a squad that returns all but three seniors? Who will replace Agunwa Okolie as Harvard’s premier perimeter defender?
Following Saturday’s game, Amaker declined to talk much about next year; he understandably preferred to focus on the seniors’ strong play and the team’s success down the stretch. But it’s worth considering what elements of this year’s squad can translate to the future—and what changes the coaching staff might want to make. Amaker naturally focuses on what stays the same: the team’s standards, its identity, and above all its emphasis on defense. But his squad is an evolving entity shaped by the player-leaders, the team’s past success and struggles, and the weight of expectations—and next year, expectations will again be high. How will the team handle the increased attention that will accompany the influx of so much talent? Opening the season against Stanford in Shanghai on November 12 certainly raises the Crimson’s profile.
To meet those expectations, the 2016-2017 team might follow the example set by this year’s senior class, who were devoted to perseverance, improvement, and competitiveness to the last moments of their careers. This year, that was not enough to earn the squad a championship. Next year, it may make the difference between the reemergence of a championship tradition and another season that ends sooner than the players and their coaches hoped.
Women’s Basketball Swept
The women’s basketball team lost its final games of the season—79-69 at Princeton and 62-46 at Pennsylvania—and in the process were knocked out of the Ivy title race. The Quakers and the Tigers have 12-1 records in the league and will decide the conference title in their regular season finale on Tuesday night.
Although the Crimson ended the year 14-13 overall and 9-5 in Ivy play, head coach Kathy Delaney-Smith’s team, which relied very heavily on three freshmen guards and will welcome several talented recruits, is well positioned to reinsert itself in the Ivy title race in coming years. The team graduates just three seniors: Kit Metoyer, Shilpa Tummala, and AnnMarie Healy.
Check out the May-June edition of Harvard Magazine for a more detailed recap, and preview of things to come, for the men’s and women’s squads.