PARADISE ISLAND, Bahamas - On the final day of the inaugural Battle 4 Atlantis tournament, Harvard found itself in a position few would have predicted: celebrating a championship.
In a tournament featuring the likes of No. 4 Connecticut and No. 22 Florida State, it was the Ivy League’s Harvard (6-0) that prevailed, winning three games in as many days over Utah, Florida State, and Central Florida to take home the title.
After holding the Seminoles to 41 points in Friday’s semifinals, it was Harvard’s defense that delivered another victory in the final. The Crimson held Central Florida (4-2) to 21 points below its average in a 59-49 win yesterday at Imperial Arena.
“I think our defense has been our calling card all season,’’ said Harvard coach Tommy Amaker, whose squad held the Knights to 33 percent shooting. “I’m very proud and pleased with the way that our kids have bought into that end of the floor and our belief in our system. Our identity starts with our defense.’’
Kyle Casey and Keith Wright - the tournament MVP - led the way for Harvard offensively, finishing with 15 and 12 points, respectively. Casey, who shot 4 of 8 from the field, added a season-high nine rebounds.
“I thought that other than Kyle being a better foul shooter than what he displayed here in this game [7 for 12], I thought he played an outstanding game,’’ said Amaker, whose team is off to the program’s best start since the 1984-85 edition opened 8-0. “Kyle did a nice job, especially on the backboard.’’
The victory puts the Crimson in strong consideration for a spot in the Top 25, which would be a first.
“I think it would mean a lot [to be ranked],’’ Wright said. “It would speak to all the hard work that we’ve put in.’’
Harvard took control right from the opening tip. After going 1 of 6 from long range Friday night, sophomore Christian Webster nailed a pair of triples to help the Crimson jump to an 8-1 lead.
Central Florida struggled in the early going, missing its first eight attempts from the field. But with 12 minutes to play in the first half, Keith Clanton, the Knights’ leading scorer, breathed some life into the offense. The 6-foot-8-inch forward finished on back-to-back post moves, pulling the Knights within 5.
The Crimson answered, as Laurent Rivard and Corbin Miller drilled 3-pointers on consecutive possessions to put Harvard up, 20-9.
A layup from Clanton with 6:14 to play in the half brought the Knights back to within 7, but the Crimson closed the half on a 10-2 run and went into the locker room leading, 33-18.
Knights guard Marcus Jordan (the youngest son of Michael) struggled mightily on the offensive end in the first half. Jordan, who entered averaging 17.3 points, bricked his first six attempts from the field and had just 1 point at the break. The junior finished with 10 points on 15 shots, while Clanton added a team-high 12 points on 16 shots.
“We didn’t want to bail [Jordan and Clanton] out. We needed to play our defense without fouling them,’’ Amaker said. “I thought we had pretty good efficiency on our game plan for those two kids.’’
Coming out of the break, Harvard extended its lead to 19 off back-to-back layups from Wright and Steve Moundou-Missi. But the Crimson went cold, scoring just two more field goals for the rest of the half, and the Knights started to hit shots, connecting on 3 of its first 5.
Central Florida chipped away, eventually cutting the deficit to 9 with less than two minutes to play. But the Knights, who shot 4 of 14 from the free throw line and 1 of 6 from 3-point territory in the second half, were never able to get closer.
“We think when we play well and when we’re together and we’re all in, we can play with anybody in the country,’’ Crimson cocaptain Oliver McNally said. “I think we displayed that this tournament.’’