STORRS, Conn. - In most seasons, it would have been just a normal December meeting between a pair of New England schools tuning up for conference races that begin next month.
In most seasons, there would be little doubt about who would win a matchup between a Connecticut team that won the national championship last spring and a Harvard team that has made serious strides for respectability under the guidance of coach Tommy Amaker.
Not this season. Not with Harvard unbeaten and the winner of the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament, in which UConn finished third (the two teams did not meet).
“They’re legitimate,’’ said UConn coach Jim Calhoun before the game, talking about a Harvard team that came to Gampel Pavilion last night looking to back up the first poll rankings in school history (No. 25 in the Associated Press, No. 24 in the USA Today coaches’ poll). “We’re going to have to show up, no question about it.’’
Calhoun, who grew up in Braintree, Mass., takes New England nonconference opponents seriously. Going into last night, UConn was an astounding 115-4 in nonconference games against New England opponents.
Make that 116-4, as the ninth-ranked Huskies (8-1) broke from a 30-28 halftime edge and pulled away to a 67-53 victory with a series of surges that Harvard could not overcome. But it was hardly easy as the Crimson kept coming off the floor and making runs at the Huskies right until the final minute.
“We came here with the idea of winning,’’ said Amaker, who watched his team fall behind by 9 points in the first half and by 16 in the first eight minutes of the second half.
“Our game plan was to manage the game. We couldn’t turn it over, give energy to the crowd, but that’s the easier said than done. For the most part we did a pretty decent job.’’
Each surge by UConn - which was led by Jeremy Lamb’s 18 points and center Andre Drummond’s 12 points and presence underneath - was met by a Harvard comeback.
But the Crimson, who must regroup quickly for a game at Boston University tomorrow, did make mistakes, committing 8 of their 11 turnovers in the second half.
UConn used a 17-3 surge to build a 47-31 lead in the first nine minutes of the second half and gain control.
What is different about this Harvard team is that it does not get flustered. It quickly responded with a 7-0 spurt to cut the Husky lead to 47-38.
But the Huskies put together their own countersurge, increasing the lead to 15 with 7:16 left, and Harvard’s opportunity for pulling off an upset seemingly had evaporated.
All the Huskies had to do was maintain, which again proved difficult. When Kyle Casey put in a 3-pointer from the top of the key at the 4:41 mark, Harvard had the margin down to 7 at 58-51.
But UConn, well aware of how dangerous Harvard is, held off the final Crimson push.
“We didn’t play as well as we could have,’’ said Harvard senior forward Keith Wright, who had 9 points and five rebounds but made only 3 of 10 shots, most of them from close range. “They played tough, we didn’t respond.
“We dug ourselves in the hole and it’s hard to dig yourself out against team like that.’’
Wright was asked if Harvard could consider playing this competitively against a top-10 team - and the defending national champion - a moral victory.
“No moral victory,’’ said Wright. “We’re past that. We have standards we hold ourselves to. Tonight, we didn’t meet those.’’
After the game, Calhoun was asked if he had changed his opinion about Harvard.
“No,’’ he said. “Tommy has done an incredible job in five years at Harvard. They’re very good because, mentally, they’re tough.
“A tough win against a good team.’’
Just not quite good enough.
Mark Blaudschun can be reached at email@example.com.