The Friday night score up in New Hampshire caught Harvard coach Tommy Amaker off guard when he heard it.
“Penn lost tonight?”
He had to ask twice.
“Penn lost at Dartmouth tonight?”
The same Dartmouth team that Harvard had neatly tucked away by 30 points the week before had handed one of the Ivy League’s perennials a 9-point loss just two games into its conference schedule.
But Amaker was by no means slighting Dartmouth.
If anything, the result showed him just how unpredictable the Ivy League would be this season.
If there were two teams the Crimson were expected to have over their shoulders this season, it was Princeton and Penn. And on Friday Harvard dealt Princeton a loss that was uglier than the 6-point margin suggested.
With Penn visiting Saturday, the Crimson had a chance to put two rivals in an early hole in one weekend. But Amaker didn’t want to get ahead of himself.
“That’s a big if,” Amaker said. “Because Penn’s going to be somewhat desperate coming in here.”
But coming off a tough loss, the Quakers only had so much fight left in them.
They missed 17 of their first 27 shots, missed six of their seven 3-point tries overall, turned the ball over 13 times, and looked lifeless after Harvard went on a 29-5 run to end the first half.
Harvard coasted to an 80-50 win and in the process upped its record to 17-3 and banked its fourth Ivy League win, making its seat atop the conference that much cozier.
“It’s definitely a good position to be in,” said forward Kyle Casey. “This league is definitely an up-and-down league, an unpredictable league. But as long as we come out and take care of business and do what we do, I think we’ll be all right. It’s definitely good to get a jump-start.”
The Crimson are the only unbeaten in the league, and the two teams closest to them (Brown and Yale, both 3-1) come to Lavietes Pavilion next weekend.
“When you can set things up like this, you just present opportunities to have bigger weekends in front of you,” Amaker said. “Now what we’ve done is to create something that can be even more meaningful for us next weekend. That’s the beauty of what these kids have been able to position our program in right now and I’m very proud of that.”
Penn came in looking to gain ground. But soon enough, the Quakers found themselves surrounded by Harvard’s scoring weapons.
If Wesley Saunders (a quiet 9 points and eight assists) wasn’t knifing through the paint for a layup, he was dishing to Casey (15 points, 11 rebounds).
Then there was the matter of Laurent Rivard lurking at the 3-point line. His hand was already scorching from the five threes he hit the night before. He drilled six 3-pointers and finished with a game-high 22 points.
Wherever Rivard was, his teammates made sure to find him.
“You hit the first one, it kind of gets you going,” Rivard said. “They did a great job of finding me in transition so I was wide open for most of the shots, so it just felt great today just like they did [Friday] night.”
The 30-point margin was Harvard’s biggest win in a series that had historically been dominated by Penn, doubling the 15-point beating it handed the Quakers a year ago.
But knowing how hard it is to play on the second night of a back-to-back in the Ivy League, Amaker wasn’t judging Penn off one loss.
“We all recognize how challenging our league can be on the second night,” Amaker said. “But I think that they’re going to be a force in this conference because of the personnel, the size that they have up front, the guard play that they can put on the floor. I think they’re going to be — as they always have been — a bear when they play at home. No question about it.”
Eventually, Amaker said, his team will have to do what Penn did — go on the road for two straight nights under difficult circumstances and find a way to win.
It’s what makes the Ivy League so challenging, and it’s also what makes the wins Harvard’s already put in its pocket so important.
“Our league, who knows what’s going to happen,” Amaker said. “There are going to be a number of twists and turns before you find out which direction this is going to go.”Julian Benbow can be reached at email@example.com.