PHILADELPHIA — In less than 24 hours, the season-long grip that Harvard held over the Ivy League slipped away.
Looking to bounce back from a loss Friday night at Princeton, the Crimson appeared sluggish and sloppy at times, and clutch and determined during others. Ultimately, an early double-digit hole proved too steep to overcome. They tried, getting as close as 2 points in the closing seconds, then launching a 23-foot 3-pointer at the buzzer that would have forced overtime. It missed, the final play of a 75-72 loss to Pennsylvania on Saturday at the Palestra.
Combined with a win by Princeton (16-9, 9-2) over Dartmouth, Harvard (17-9, 9-3) now trails the Tigers by a half-game heading into the season’s final stretch, with the conference title and automatic NCAA Tournament berth left to be decided. Princeton closes with three road games; both of Harvard’s remaining games come at home next weekend, against Columbia and Cornell.
“As I mentioned to our kids, we’ve seen a lot of interesting things happen in our league already,” Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said. “We have two games to play, we’re going home, and we’re going to strap it on and see what happens. No matter what happened tonight or last night, our mind-set is the same: We’re going home to finish out our regular-season schedule, and we’ll come up for air and see where that puts us, see where it is. It’s all that we can do.
“Are we upset and disappointed? Absolutely. But give them credit.”
Christian Webster, whose 3-point attempt to tie the game came up well short, painted a melancholy picture when asked to describe the locker-room mood.
“It’s the worst it’s ever been. It’s doom and gloom, but we’ve just got to play it out and hope for the best, that somebody else knocks off Princeton,” said Webster, the team’s lone senior, who scored 16 points. “It’s as disappointing as it gets, especially for me, my last go-round. To lose two big games down here is frustrating.”
Harvard didn’t go down without a fight. After trailing by 16 points in the first half, 12 points at halftime, and as many as 13 in the second half, the Crimson got back into the game by shooting lights-out from long range, one night after missing all eight of their 3-point tries.
Against the Quakers, Harvard went 10 for 21 from behind the arc, and knocked in 8 of 11 in the second half to spark a rally. The Crimson pulled within 3 (72-69) on a 3-pointer by Siyani Chambers with 13.3 seconds left, and after a pair of free throws by Penn’s Miles Cartwright, Webster made it a 2-point game with his fifth 3-pointer with four seconds left. But the Quakers (8-20, 5-6) did just enough to keep the Crimson constantly playing catch-up.
Penn never trailed, and jumped out to leads of 9-3, 17-8, 28-16, and 38-22, its largest. Harvard’s problems in the first half came mostly on offense; the Crimson shot just 26 percent (6 for 23) and turned the ball over nine times.
Wesley Saunders paced Harvard with 20 points. Tony Hicks had 24 points for Penn, and freshman Darien Nelson-Henry added 18 points and 11 rebounds. The Quakers will have another chance to be spoilers, a bid supported by Harvard: They close the season March 12, hosting Princeton.
“We’re all playing for something,” Penn coach Jerome Allen said. “I give our guys credit. We played with a sense of desperation, a sense of urgency.”
It showed. Penn was in attack mode, even though Harvard’s Kenyatta Smith was guarding the basket. Smith nearly had the first triple-double in Harvard history the first time the teams met, scoring 20 points with 10 blocks and 9 rebounds. The Quakers were undeterred, slashing and driving to the goal any chance they got; they outscored Harvard in the paint, 34-14.
The news wasn’t good from a few miles up I-95, either. Princeton, which trailed by 9 points in the first half, came back and beat Dartmouth, 68-63. It’s the Tigers now, not Harvard, who control the Ivy. If the Crimson want to force a playoff — or win the Ivy League outright — they’ll need to win, and get help from somebody else. And if it doesn’t come, the lost weekend at Jadwin Gym and the Palestra will be the primary culprit.Michael Whitmer can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.