There were so many things for Harvard to worry about besides Princeton.
First there was Kenyatta Smith.
He had just come back after missing the first 17 games of the season with a broken right foot.
Crimson coach Tommy Amaker let him ease into things with a couple of pressure-free minutes in a blowout against Darmouth last Sunday.
Then, the next day, Smith broke the foot again.
His season was over just as it was restarting.
“He was set,” Amaker said. “We played him. Very disappointing for him first of all, and certainly disappointing for our team, knowing that he was going to be an integral part of whatever success we were going to have and now we don’t have him.”
Then there were Agunwa Okolie and Jonah Travis.
Okolie’s knee had nagged him all week. Soreness kept him out of practice Wednesday and Thursday.
Travis, who’s made his living this season doing the dirty work, had been knocked around so much in the Dartmouth game he sustained a concussion.
They were both out indefinitely, Amaker said.
By the time the Crimson took the floor Friday night at Lavietes Pavilion, one look at their bench made it clear what kind of shape they were in.
There were players suited up and players wearing suits.
“That’s kind of been the theme this season: Guys getting injured and other people having to step up,” said leading scorer Wesley Saunders, who just two weeks ago sat out two games, including a close loss to Connecticut, with a knee injury. “So I think it’s just something that we’ve gotten used to.”
Between the latest rash of injuries, Saunders’s injury, and the nine games that backup guard Brandyn Curry missed with a foot injury, the Crimson have had their issues. But because they were 15-3 going into Friday night’s game with two Ivy League wins in their pocket, that was easy to overlook.
With an 82-76 victory, the Crimson managed to keep the machine running smoothly against a Princeton team that was looking for its first Ivy League win.
Nothing about the victory — or the injury-riddled week — was easy, but Amaker expects his team to deal with whatever comes its way.
“It was a very tough game for us to figure out with not having a full complement of players,” Amaker said. “We’ve got to figure it out. And I thought it was a tremendous effort by our guys to figure it out tonight.”
No one in the Ivy League had attempted more 3-pointers than Princeton (416) coming in, and it had knocked down the second-most treys in the league (158). The least assuming of their long-range weapons was probably Hans Brase, who came in shooting just 16 of 43 from deep. But he scored Princeton’s first 11 points and put up 17 of the Tigers’ first 21, going 7 of 9 from the floor in the first half with three 3-pointers to match his career high.
“He torched us really early,” Amaker said.
The Tigers knocked down 5 of their 9 first-half threes. But in the second half, Harvard made a concerted effort to make sure any three Princeton took was a bad one.
The Tigers came up empty on four of their first five long-range looks. Meanwhile, Harvard started the half on a 14-7 run, capped by Laurent Rivard drilling a three and Curry splitting a pair of free throws to make it 50-42.
The Crimson fought off a late flurry that was led by the Tigers’ T.J. Bray (game-high 26 points, four 3-pointers) and aided by Harvard’s poor free throw shooting (20 of 33).
But Amaker was glad to come away with a win over a traditionally tough rival under deceptively tough circumstances.
Saunders, Rivard, Siyani Chambers, and Curry all played 30-plus minutes. At times, Amaker went with a smaller lineup and used Rivard as the power forward.
“It was different,” said Rivard, who scored 18 points on 5-of-9 shooting (all makes from deep). “But Coach always says, ‘Stay ready so you don’t have to get ready.’ So whether we have these guys or not, we just stay true to our identity. Maybe we have to play some more minutes, but a lot of us are used to it.”
Saunders was constantly multitasking, scoring 24 points, grabbing nine rebounds, spreading around seven assists, and coming up with three steals.
He understood that with Harvard’s talent, injuries aren’t an excuse.
“I think definitely the expectations are higher, but that’s something that we knew coming into this season,” Saunders said. “I think that for the most part we’ve been able to handle it pretty well to this point. It’s just a long horse race and we’ve just got to keep pushing.
“We know that things are going to happen, there’s going to be ups and downs, people are going to be out, people are going to be coming back. So we just have to stick to our goals and principles and things that we’ve been doing.”Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.