HANOVER, N.H - It was a one-day business trip. No muss, no fuss.
Which is the way it will be most of the time for coach Tommy Amaker’s Harvard Crimson as they dive into the Ivy League portion of their schedule, favorites to win every game they will play over the next two months.
Last night, it was an up-and-back trip to Dartmouth for the Crimson, who powered their way to a 54-38 victory over the Big Green.
It was anything but pretty - on either side - as the Crimson (16-2, 2-0) struggled to start both halves, but pulled away at the end, largely because of the depth of their bench rather than anything the starters did.
Dartmouth (4-14, 0-2) submitted the lowest point total by an Ivy team this season, and the fewest points by the Big Green since they scored 38 two years ago in a loss to Princeton. All of which made sense since Harvard came into the game as the top defensive team in the Ivy - fifth in the country - and Dartmouth came in as the worst offensive team in the league.
“Any road win in the league is always incredibly significant,’’ said Amaker. “You’re totally pleased if you can win on the road in the league. But I thought our defense was outstanding.’’
It was indeed, and so was the production of the bench. While Harvard’s starters only managed 22 points, the reserves were led by freshman Corbin Miller (13 points). Steve Moundou-Missi added 9 points, and Christian Webster had 8.
“Our bench production was terrific,’’ said Amaker.
Webster, who was coming off a hip pointer, and Miller, who had missed the last three games with a thumb injury, were ready to fill whatever role was needed.
“Anything the coach asks us to do we’re going to do it,’’ said Webster, who was a starter before the injury and appears certain to quickly work his way back into that role. “And tonight he asked the bench to help. And me and Corbin were asked to do that. I thought we did that well.’’
Miller, a 6-foot-2-inch freshman from Sandy, Utah, felt the same way. “It’s about being ready to come up and get in the game, and tonight the guys did that,’’ he said.
Leede Arena was sold out (2,100) for the first time since Dec. 30, 2000, when eighth-ranked Virginia made the trip to Dartmouth.
And while Amaker and his players had memories of a 63-47 victory over the Big Green two weeks ago at Lavietes Pavilion, they also came here knowing that life on the road can take some strange twists. Adding to the uncertainty was the fact the Big Green held a 5-point lead last night five minutes in the second half.
It took awhile for the Crimson to warm to the task of extending the best start to a season for an Ivy League team since Princeton began the 1997-98 season 16-1.
Harvard didn’t score its first basket until 14:16 remained in the first half, when Keith Wright converted a layup. The good news for the Crimson was that the Big Green only had a 6-0 lead at the time.
A minute and a half later, Webster tied the game with a jumper from the corner.
And with that, Harvard was back into its normal flow of defense, rebounding, and 3-point shots, all of which have made it the main force in the Ivy League, and a March Madness threat as the Crimson search for their first NCAA Tournament bid since the 1945-46 season.
But like the meeting in Cambridge two weeks ago, it took time for the Crimson to establish complete control. At the half, Harvard held a 23-16 lead, despite shooting only 34 percent (8 of 23) and committing nine turnovers.
The second half started just as poorly as the first for both teams. At the first media timeout at the 15:52 mark, the Crimson and Big Green each had one basket as Harvard held a 25-19 lead.
It seemed clear that this Crimson victory wouldn’t make many highlight reels.
What made it acceptable was the performance of the reserves. With 11:43 remaining, Harvard held a 34-25 lead, but the Crimson starters had accounted for only 10 points.
“Our bench and our balance have been the two B-words for us,’’ said Amaker.
The Crimson finally pulled away in the final minutes for the victory, but it gave new meaning to the term “winning ugly.’’