CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – Sometimes, the numbers aren’t even worth looking at if you watched the game and want to explain the result. Sometimes, all the things that don’t show up in a box score say it all, say more than the box score could ever tell you. And sometimes, a championship can be explained from it.
Enter Harvard’s 63-55 win over Princeton on Saturday night. While Harvard has proven their mettle in close games – they are 4-1 on the season in games decided by five points or less – there’s one main way to explain this one: a will to win. Harvard had it, Princeton might have a bit of it, but not nearly as much as Harvard did and certainly not enough.
“There is a belief that we can find ways that we can push through, and we were fortunate to be able to do it tonight,” said head coach Tommy Amaker.
Princeton has battled back from a bad non-league performance to hang in there in the Ivy League race, though they needed some help. The Tigers had not been as good a defensive team as they usually are, but in the first half on Saturday night they were excellent at that end. They forced Harvard into a lot of tough shots, may have rattled their confidence as Harvard also couldn’t finish some close shots they got, then translated that into offense as they shot nearly 61 percent from the field. Princeton led by 12 more than once before a Crimson run helped them get a little closer before halftime.
The late run at first appeared to do little more than get Harvard closer, but it may have set the stage for what was to come.
“We just talked about trying to hang in there,” said Amaker. “I thought that we missed so many things around the rim, I thought that if we could just show the composure and be able to relax a little bit in the second half, the shots we didn’t make in the first half we would make in the second half.”
In the second half, Harvard first appeared to solve the Princeton defense, but the Tigers had enough answers to maintain. It was only a matter of time, however, before Harvard would get the stops they needed as well, and they did. Princeton admirably rebounded after Harvard gained a 45-44 lead to go back on top, but Harvard would eventually take the lead for good. You could see it coming, and once the Crimson got the lead over a possession, you had a feeling they had this one.
“We had to dig down and just compete every possession, get stops and defensive rebounds,” said junior point guard Siyani Chambers. “I think in the second half we were able to do that, down the stretch and in the key moments of the game.”
The Crimson certainly had to do that defensively, given Princeton’s offensive prowess in the first half. They know the offense is always tough to defend, and even tougher when Princeton is as locked in as they were defensively in the opening frame.
Saturday marked the third time in the last four years, and fourth time overall, that the Crimson have overcome a double-digit deficit against Princeton to win. With it, they swept Penn and Princeton for the second year in a row, the first time anyone has done that in 60 years. While it’s a remarkable tale of how great Penn and Princeton have been as the long-time standard-bearers for the league, it also speaks volumes about how Harvard is currently in that position. It also reinforced a big part of how they have arrived in that place.
“I think that’s something that we’ve had here in this program,” Amaker said of the team’s will to win. “We’ve gone through some stages and moments that we’ve had, I think there’s a belief and a confidence that we can do it. I think our kids displayed that tonight against a really good basketball team and a tough team.”
With the win and Yale losing to Columbia, Harvard now leads the Ivy League by a game. They won’t get too comfortable, and not just because they host the Bulldogs on the last weekend of the season. They either need help or to match Yale game for game and then beat them in Cambridge on March 7. If they emerge as Ivy League champions once again, their will to win will have a lot to do with it – probably a lot more than any numbers will.