ITHACA, N.Y. — When Brandyn Curry walked into the gym last Monday, he had every reason to expect a typical practice. But Harvard coach Tommy Amaker knew his team needed something different.
The Crimson were coming off their first loss in the Ivy League and Amaker could look at his players and see the cumulative toll the season had taken.
“It’s natural for them to feel sort of a mental fatigue as well, not just physical,” Amaker said. “The season can be long. I was just trying to make them aware that we understand that it can be a grind.”
So instead of an ordinary practice, Amaker turned Monday’s session into a shootaround.
Then he told his team to take a day to get away from the game.
He didn’t want them to come in for individual work. He didn’t want anyone sneaking into Lavietes Pavilion trying to get extra shots up. He didn’t want them to touch a basketball.
“He thought that we looked a little tired the past weekend,” Curry said. “He made sure nobody was in the gym.”
For Curry, that was a lot to ask. Not just because he is a gym rat, but because an ankle injury had limited him to only 14 games to that point. He felt fresh.
“It was kind of tough,” Curry said. “I had the whole month off, so I feel good with energy.”
But after Harvard finished its first true Ivy League road trip with a 67-44 win over Cornell on Saturday — which followed Friday’s double-overtime victory over Columbia — Curry knew his team was better for it.
“I think it was a good call by him,” Curry said. “We came back, had great practices Wednesday and Thursday and we felt really, really good coming into this weekend. I think guys knew that they needed to get away from it.”
Between the ironman match with Columbia and the overnight bus ride to Ithaca, it would have been easy to wonder how much Harvard would have left for Cornell.
Amaker knew he didn’t have to worry.
“I really felt that we were prepared coming into this weekend with taking care of the fatigue factor,” Amaker said. “I thought going into last weekend, I felt like we had a little bit of a tired team. We certainly tried to address that in going lighter and being a little bit different in our practice this week.
“We made them aware after [Friday] night’s game that we’ve already addressed the tired thing. So we’re not going up to Ithaca with any thoughts of us being tired even though we had to do double overtime. That wasn’t even going to be a thought in our minds.”
The Crimson upped their record to 20-4 (7-1 in the Ivy), making them the first Ivy League team since Penn in the early 1970s to post five straight 20-win seasons.
Out of the gates, it was hard to tell which team was supposed to be mentally and physically drained.
While Harvard was rushing out to an 18-9 lead on 7-of-14 shooting, Cornell (2-20, 1-7) was stuck in neutral, coming up empty on 11 of its first 15 shots.
By the half, Harvard had thrown Cornell into a 38-24 hole, and the lead stretched out to 18 early in the second half when Kyle Casey cut backdoor and threw down a two-handed flush off of an alley-oop lob from Siyani Chambers.
Curry came off the bench and scored 14 points, igniting a Crimson offense that shot 60 percent from the field, the second-highest percentage under Amaker.
“Brandyn is just stepping forward for us,” Amaker said. “He’s doing things that a senior guard should do. I think when you watch, there’s a confidence factor that he brings.”
At the same time, Harvard held Cornell to a season-low 44 points, the fewest points Harvard has allowed to an Ivy League opponent this season.
“Defense is our calling card,” Curry said. “We pride ourselves on being a defensive team and every time we go into a game, the first thing that we focus on is defense. So we feel like no matter what — if our shots are not falling — our defense should never waver.”
With their 20-game win streak at Lavietes snapped by Yale last weekend, the Crimson were in the position of having to bounce back on the road. Back-to-back wins kept them tied atop the Ivy with Yale, which picked up victories over Penn and Princeton.
“It feels good,” Curry said. “Definitely after losing a tough one at home we were talking about regrouping and responding.”
They welcomed the chance to do it away from their own gym, especially knowing they had their legs under them.
“It’s not home,” Curry said. “It’s an uncomfortable situation. We felt like our backs were against the wall after our loss, and it was a really good test for our team.”Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.