For all the expectations hovering over Harvard coming into the season, coach Tommy Amaker still wasn’t completely sure what to expect going into the season opener against Holy Cross.
He had seniors Kyle Casey and Brandon Curry returning after sitting out last season.
But how would the reintegration go?
Would the combination of Curry and sophomore Siyani Chambers work?
Then there were questions beyond chemistry.
Junior center Kenyatta Smith was on the Crimson bench in street clothes and a walking boot because of a foot injury he sustained in practice.
He was out indefinitely and that meant Casey, who hadn’t started since the Crimson won its second of three straight Ivy League titles, would have to start in his place.
Then there was still Holy Cross to consider. Harvard knew as much as anyone that the Crusaders had more talent than their 12-18 record last season might have shown.
Not even a calendar year ago, Crusaders forward Dave Dudzinski set the nets on fire at Lavietes Pavilion, dropping 22 points.
When the teams finally tipped it off Sunday in the final game of the Coaches vs. Cancer Boston Tip-Off tripleheader at TD Garden, the Crimson found themselves at the intersection of expectations and reality.
“Until you play and suit up and it’s for real, you’re wondering,” Amaker said. “You never know what things are going to be thrown at you in different ways.”
The Crimson found themselves trailing by 8 early, up by 10, and then down by 1 late, but in the end they were able to sew together an 82-72 victory, getting answers to all their questions.
When the offense struggled to find a rhythm in the first half, junior forward Jonah Travis made sure it stayed on beat.
He cobbled together a career-high 20 points by largely doing grunt work, grabbing 10 rebounds and cutting to the basket to make sure either Curry, Chambers, or Wesley Saunders could find him for an easy layup.
The trio had nine assists in the first half and finished with 16 on the night, feeding off the most unassuming spark plug on the floor.
“I know my job,” Travis said. “My job is to come in there and provide energy for the team and if that helps them get over the hump or the slow start that we had, then that’s what we need to do. If they needed me to grab rebounds or set screens or score points when I was out open, that’s what I did.”
It wasn’t that Holy Cross coach Milan Brown didn’t see Travis coming. The scouting report couldn’t have been more accurate.
“He did exactly what we had on the scout, which was he’s going to feed off others,” Brown said.
A player that could make an impact without having plays called for him is a coach’s Christmas gift.
“We’re going to need that throughout the year,’’ Amaker said. “There’s no question that we’ve talked a lot with our team that on any given day there could be someone that could step forward and provide the necessary plays that can propel us to having a positive performance.”
Still, for most of the night it felt as if the Crimson didn’t have enough hoses to put out Dudzinski, who torched them for 20 points in the first half, going 7 of 9 from the floor, 5 of 5 from the stripe, and knocking down a 3. He finished with 25 points.
“We knew going in he was a great player,” Travis said. “Last year and past years, he lit us up before and we know what he’s able to accomplish.”
If they were going to stop him, Travis said, they were going to have to do it before the ball ever got to him. Denying him touches became the mission. In the second half, the Crimson managed to hold him to just five shots and never let him get back to the line.
What slowed Dudzinski down as much as the Crimson defense was a bout of cramping near the 11-minute mark that essentially limited him to decoy duty in the second half.
“Obviously we would like to ride Dave. We thought he was going to get 30-35 points,” Brown said. “But once he started cramping, somebody else had to make some other plays. “
When the Crusaders went on an 18-7 second-half run and took a 61-60 lead with 5:49 left, the Crimson were looking for someone to do the same.
Chambers, last year’s Ivy League rookie of the year, gladly volunteered, going on a 7-0 run by himself, knocking down a pair of free throws, hitting an elbow jumper off the dribble, and knocking down a corner 3 to put Harvard back up, 67-61.
When he looked back at the sequence, Brown said it was what he expected from a Harvard team that came into the season looking to build off its first NCAA Tournament win.
“We played a team that understands how to win and that’s been in big moments and they’re at a level that we’re trying to get to,” Brown said.
But in coming from behind late, Amaker said his team was able to find out about itself.
“There’s always some uncertainty, even though we have a veteran team and some experienced guys,” Amaker said. “We were disjointed. This group is trying to find itself. We’re evolving. It’s going to be certainly a process for this particular team. Every team is different every year, regardless how many guys return.
“I like the fact that we have different people that can step forward and hopefully give us a boost or a lift that’s going to be needed from night to night to give us a chance.”