The clock had just ticked under the 16-minute mark in the second half, and Yale’s Justin Sears was still having a quiet night.
He was the Bulldogs’ leading scorer entering Saturday’s matchup at Harvard at 14.9 points per game, but beyond a pair of putbacks, it was hard to find his fingerprints on a contest that had subtle implications on the Ivy League championship.
Sears was in front of Yale’s bench with his man sagging slightly off him, and by the way he was pounding the ball into the hardwood at Lavietes Pavilion it looked like he was itching to pull the trigger.
He let go of a long jumper that whispered sweet nothings to the net as it passed through. Then he let out a howl as he hopped back on defense.
It was the last of three straight buckets for Yale to start the half, and it had a larger meaning. It gave the Bulldogs their largest lead to that point, 45-35, and it put the Crimson in their biggest hole of the Ivy League season.
“Psychologically for us, especially here at home, it was something that kind of knocked us back,” Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said.
The Crimson had blown teams out by 30 (Dartmouth and Penn), had built large leads and protected them (Princeton), and just the night before had won a low-scoring brawl with Brown.
But for the first time Saturday, the Crimson found themselves against the ropes, having to come from behind to protect their spotless conference record. They couldn’t muster a comeback.
Yale walked out of Lavietes with a 74-67 win, its first at Harvard since February 2009, that was quietly critical in keeping the Ivy League race alive. Harvard had a chance to build a two-game lead in the conference with eight games to play. But rather than let the Crimson (18-4) run away, the Bulldogs (11-9) pulled even with them at 5-1 in the Ivy.
“I think it’s significant because it gives us a chance to stay relevant,” Yale coach James Jones said. “You lose the game and Harvard’s got two games on everybody in the league and it makes it hard. Now you need help from somebody. Now you’ve got control over what you do, as they have control over what they do.”
Regardless of the outcome, Amaker said he had the same message for his team after the game.
“I told our guys we weren’t going to get a championship tonight if we’d won, and I was prepared to tell them the exact thing to them,” Amaker said. “We weren’t going to be awarded a trophy or a title if we had won. I was prepared to say to them — win or lose — it’s a long horse race.”
Coming off a physical game against Brown, Amaker sensed that things wouldn’t get easier with Yale.
“I felt it,” he said. “Certainly I anticipated this being one of the tougher games that we were going to have in our conference. I always thought of them as having outstanding personnel and I think we saw that tonight — how strong they are, how physical they are, and how hard they played.”
Once Yale realized Harvard was reeling, it was relentless.
When Harvard forward Steven Moundou-Missi converted a 3-point play with 8:17 left, Yale guard Armani Cotton drilled a 3-pointer to push the lead back to 6 (53-47).
Yale forward Greg Kelley drained another 3-pointer with 6:07 left to put the Bulldogs ahead, 58-49. It was his only bucket of the night and just his second 3-pointer in conference play.
When Harvard guard Wesley Saunders corkscrewed through the defense for a layup with 4:31 left, Sears swiftly raced the other way for a dunk to put the Bulldogs up, 62-51.
Finally, when Brandyn Curry drilled a three that made it 66-61 with 1:04 left, the Crimson had no other choice but to foul, sending Sears to the line.
He coolly drilled a pair of free throws that all but iced the game. By the end of the night, Sears finished with game highs of 21 points and 11 rebounds.
“They made every big play that they needed to make when it was kind of teetering there,” Amaker said.
Saunders led the Crimson with 16 points but did so on 6-of-17 shooting. Siyani Chambers was the only other starter in double figures with 10 points. Curry had 12.
For Amaker, the stat sheet said more than the final score. The Bulldogs shot 51 percent from the floor, 60 percent from deep (both season highs for a Harvard opponent), and outrebounded the Crimson, 38-24.
“I’m surprised that the score is what it is,” Amaker said.
The loss snapped Harvard’s 20-game home win streak. Now the Crimson have four straight road games.
“I wish we could be undefeated and the only team in first place,” Amaker said. “But we’re still in first place and we still have a lot of basketball that we’ve got to get ready for, especially on the road. It may be a good thing for us.”Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.