Perhaps it’s coincidental — likely not — but Harvard grabbed control of the Ivy League men’s basketball race the same weekend it may have unveiled its next star.
One night after nearly becoming the first Harvard player to record a triple-double — he was one rebound shy against Penn on Friday — sophomore center Kenyatta Smith picked up right where he left off, stuffing the stat sheet again in the Crimson’s 69-57 win over Princeton at Lavietes Pavilion. The emphatic victory between the top teams in the conference pushed Harvard (15-7, 7-1) to a 1 ½-game lead on the Tigers (12-9, 5-2), with three weekends left in the regular season.
They’ll meet again in New Jersey on March 1, but for now, Harvard is the hunted.
Smith is an intimidating, versatile, confident, 6-foot-8-inch reason why. Against the Tigers he overcame early foul trouble and scored 14 points, didn’t miss a shot (5 for 5 from the field, 4 for 4 on free throws), pulled down 7 rebounds, and blocked 6 shots.
In wins against Penn and Princeton over the weekend, Smith scored 34 points, went 13 for 14 from the field, had 16 rebounds, and blocked 16 shots.
Quite the coming-out party.
“Now that I’m able to take my time in the post and I’m adjusting to playing more, I’m not building myself up with as much anxiety,” Smith said. “My main goal before was not to mess up. Now it’s just to let the game flow and do what I do best: rebound, block shots. Luckily the rest has come with it.”
Smith was dominant from the opening tip, making both of his field goal attempts, grabbing two rebounds, and blocking two shots in the first six minutes. But he picked up his second foul with 13:10 left in the first half, and sat until the start of the second half.
Following two free throws by T.J. Bray — who drew the second foul on Smith — the Crimson trailed, 12-8. But without their big man protecting the paint, they turned to the player who came off the bench to replace him, forward Steve Moundou-Missi. The sophomore made his first four shots, including a posterizing, one-handed slam over Ian Hummer, Princeton’s leading scorer and a strong candidate for Ivy player of the year.
Behind Moundou-Missi’s team-high 8 points in the first half, Harvard outscored the Tigers with Smith on the bench, 24-16, punctuated by a buzzer-beating 3-pointer by Laurent Rivard to give the Crimson a 32-28 halftime lead.
“As the sixth man, my job is to come out with energy, rebound the ball, and give my teammates a great push. That’s what I was trying to do,” said Moundou-Missi, who finished with 14 points, 7 rebounds, and 4 steals.
Even without Smith on the floor for as much as they’d like, the Crimson focused their defense on a hot-shooting Princeton offense that had been clicking. The Tigers came in on a five-game streak of shooting at least 50 percent from the field, and were even better from 3-point range, going 34 for 59 (58 percent) over their last four.
Smith had a big hand in ending Princeton’s 50-percent streak. Back on the floor for the start of the second half, he had three more blocks by the first media timeout. No longer limited by foul trouble — he played 13 second-half minutes — his shot-blocking presence was pivotal as Harvard held the Tigers to 40 percent overall (20 for 50), and 36 percent on 3-pointers (4 for 11). They made just 3 of their first 13 shots in the second half, a drought that allowed Harvard to build an 11-point lead, its largest until then, at 48-37.
“Our defense was outstanding in the second half. We defended the 3-point line, thought we dug in. We were tougher defensively,” Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said. “I was incredibly proud of our team, for the focus that we’ve had this weekend. Not just tonight, but this weekend.
“Kenyatta has really energized our team and propelled us here for the last couple ballgames. He was ready for an opportunity and embraced it and seized it. Who knows who the next person in our locker room that’s going to be asked to do something to help our basketball team that maybe hasn’t done as much thus far.”Michael Whitmer can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.