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Harvard 52, Brown 45

Freshman Zena Edosomwan makes big difference

Power in the paint leads Crimson to victory

Harvard freshman Zena Edosomwan may have played only 12 minutes Friday night, but he scored a team-high 12 points against Brown and added five rebounds (four offensive).

josh reynolds for the globe

Harvard freshman Zena Edosomwan may have played only 12 minutes Friday night, but he scored a team-high 12 points against Brown and added five rebounds (four offensive).

The block was only so big, and the first time he found himself in a tussle, Harvard’s freshman manchild, Zena Edosomwan, decided he wasn’t going to budge.

Brown’s frontline had a reputation that preceded it: big and physical.

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Edosomwan was going to have to deal with it.

“I was getting held a little bit,” Edosomwan said, “and I was just like, ‘You know what, you can’t complain. Just keep working. Don’t let that get you out of your game.’ They’re not going to let me have it easy.”

Edosomwan was a Top 100 recruit with a 6-foot-9-inch, 245-pound frame, but in his first season at Harvard he was still adjusting to it all, from the size of the players he was constantly crashing into to the sheer physicality.

Moshing with the Bears’ big men was inevitable, so he embraced it.

It didn’t matter which big man Brown sent his way. Edosomwan turned the low post into a wrestling ring.

When a shot came off the rim, it was like the opening bell.

When Rafael Maia pushed his 6-9, 230-pound frame into Edosomwan, the freshman shoved back with every inch and ounce of his body.

When Leland King tried to create a 6-7, 215-pound wall between Edosomwan and the basket, Edosomwan lowered his shoulder and busted through it.

Edosomwan made the battle in the paint seem like a turf war.

“I think that’s one of the biggest things going up against these guys, is these guys are really strong,” Edosomwan said. “So I just told myself, ‘What are you going to do now? You’ve got to battle back with these guys. Don’t let his physicality be better than yours.’ ”

Against a Brown team that entered Friday second in the Ivy League in rebounding margin (plus-4.8), first in total rebounds (40.4), and second in blocks (4.3), that’s the way it had to be.

For most of Harvard’s 52-45 win at Lavietes Pavilion, the Crimson (18-3, 5-0) found themselves in an alley fight.

Edosomwan did his best to be the Crimson’s bouncer in the paint, putting up 12 points and five rebounds (four offensive) in 11 minutes off the bench. With the injuries that have hobbled Harvard’s frontline, his presence was needed.

Even though Edosomwan’s minutes have been sparse this season, Harvard coach Tommy Amaker has seen the forward take steady steps, and Amaker considered Friday night another one.

“I think it’s big for his confidence,” Amaker said. “I think that’s one of the bigger things that he’s starting to show and you can see it growing. We’ve seen it now for a few games. It’s really paid off and it’s really nice to see that. It’s nice to see a kid get rewarded by playing well when he’s really put forth the extra effort to improve.”

It was the kind of game that should have included bumps and bruises in the box score, and with just one game separating the teams for the top spot in the conference, the Crimson expected a battle.

“I’ve got a few bruises,” Wesley Saunders said, grinning. “I’ve got a dead leg. I bumped my knee. But other than that, it’s all good. We knew it was going to be a fight. We knew they were going to come in jacked up for this game and we were too.”

It was more of a grappling match than a shootout. Brown (11-8, 3-2) shot 27.3 percent from the field. The Crimson shot 32.1. For the first time all season, no Crimson starter scored in double figures.

Steve Moundou-Missi missed seven of his 10 shots, but grabbed nine boards and blocked three shots. Kyle Casey scored just 5 points but grabbed nine rebounds, making him the fourth player in Harvard history with 1,000 points, 600 rebounds, and 100 blocks.

After making big scoring nights seem routine for most of the season, Saunders, Harvard’s leading scorer, struggled from the floor and had just 6 points on 2-of-13 shooting.

But with Sean McGonagill, the Ivy League’s top scorer, as his defensive assignment, it was more important for Saunders to be a stopper than a scorer.

“He had to be,” Amaker said. “If he doesn’t lock in defensively, we don’t win.”

McGonagill was held to 8 points on 2-of-11 shooting. With the Crimson clinging to a 50-45 lead with 1:06 left, Saunders shadowed McGonagill so tightly that McGonagill ran out of space, stumbled to the floor, and was whistled for traveling.

Even though Harvard has the league’s most potent offense, it can win in other ways.

The Crimson have held seven opponents this season to 50 or fewer points. Brown’s shooting percentage was the second-lowest under Amaker (TCU shot 25 percent Dec. 1).

“It wasn’t easy to win this game,” Amaker said. “Normally, we’ve been a team that can score the ball and one of the highest-scoring teams in our league. I complemented them on keeping up the defensive intensity to stay with it.

“We have shown from tonight, when it gets tight and we’re not scoring the ball very well, that we can still figure out how to come out with a victory.”

Julian Benbow can be reached at jbenbow@globe.com.
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