With first place on the line when Princeton comes calling Saturday night, the last thing Harvard wanted going into such a key game was an Ivy League losing streak.
Pennsylvania brought a league-low five wins and a league-high 17 losses to Lavietes Pavilion on Friday night, but the Crimson were wise not to overlook the Quakers. It was last-place Columbia, after all, which manhandled Harvard last weekend, snapping its four-game win streak.
Plus, the Crimson had a (somewhat) secret weapon. Thanks to a career night from center Kenyatta Smith, the Crimson bounced back and enjoyed a rare breather, rolling to a 73-54 win over Penn.
Smith’s numbers seemingly came out of nowhere. The sophomore from Sun Valley, Calif., played seven minutes total in the two-game New York trip, and had scored in double figures just once in his brief Crimson career.
Against the Quakers (5-18, 2-4), he flirted with a triple-double. Smith scored 20 points (making 8 of 9 shots from the field), blocked 10 shots, and grabbed 9 rebounds. All are personal bests. It came in 31 minutes (also a career high), but Smith spent the last two minutes on the bench, one rebound shy of making Harvard history. There is no triple-double in the Crimson record book.
Did he want to stay on the floor for one more rebound?
“I’m just glad with the win. This is my first start since the beginning of the season, so Coach [Tommy Amaker] told me not to worry about the scoring, just do what I’ve been doing whenever I’ve been getting my minutes, rebound and block shots,” Smith said. “That was my goal for this game. The offense was going to flow.”
With an assortment of moves and jump-hooks around the basket, Smith easily surpassed his previous high in points, an 11-point effort against Rice on Jan. 5. In seven games since then, prior to Friday, he had combined for 15 points.
Smith’s last start had been Nov. 27. Amaker, though, had a hunch about him.
“Kenyatta made me look very good by starting him. We need him to be a presence for us on our team,” Amaker said. “I never anticipated him to get 10 blocks, but we certainly need him to protect the rim, and he did that exceptionally well. He had a magnificent game.
“I felt it was time for him to make a giant step for this team and this program, and what better time to do it than tonight and this weekend.”
For the third straight home game — and fourth time in the last five overall — Harvard (14-7, 6-1) built a double-digit halftime lead, pushing ahead, 37-27, on a buzzer-beating jumper by Wesley Saunders, giving him 17 points. Saunders finished with a game-high 23.
But big halftime leads hadn’t been good to the Crimson. Despite leading recent games by 13, 13, and 16 points halfway through, Harvard had to hold on for 3-, 7-, and 2-point wins.
Unlike the other Crimson opponents, though, the Quakers had no dramatic comeback in them. They cut it under 10 just once, on a layup by Darien Nelson-Henry to start the second half. Harvard’s second-half lead swelled to 23.
Nelson-Henry, a 6-foot-11-inch freshman center, came in averaging just 7.4 points. But he made four of his five shots in the first half, had 10 points, and finished with a team-high 14.
Now Harvard can turn its undivided attention to Princeton, which won at Dartmouth on Friday, 73-55. While every contest in the 14-game Ivy League schedule counts equally, some bring an extra shot of sizzle. The Crimson have hit the halfway Ivy slate with just one loss, alone in first place. But the Tigers are only a half-game behind, also with just one loss.
“This league is won on Saturday nights,” Smith said. “I can’t spend too much time, a few minutes, maybe a couple hours, dwelling on this game.”Michael Whitmer can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.