Harvard appeared to be coasting to yet another home victory against Dartmouth Saturday. But coasting became the operative word in the second half, the Crimson running into a Big Green roadblock in the final 13 minutes of a 70-61 loss.
The Crimson (11-5, 1-1 Ivy) squandered a 14-point lead and snapped their nine-game home winning streak and their 11-game winning streak over Dartmouth (8-8, 1-1).
“I thought they deserved the game,” Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said of the Big Green. “I told our kids that they played tougher, were better-coached, and all those things, than we were. I thought they deserved the victory — and that’s disappointing to say but I think that’s true.”
Harvard had taken a 57-46 win over Dartmouth in both teams’ Ivy opener Jan. 10, and seemed to be on the way to another double-digit victory. Harvard had won all seven home contests by an average margin of 20 points this season and entered the game with a 56-3 home mark since the 2010-11 season.
But things changed drastically after Wesley Saunders’s 3-pointer upped the Harvard advantage to 43-29 with 13:10 remaining. Dartmouth coach Paul Cormier’s motivational and tactical moves started paying off, and by the time the Crimson recovered, it was too late.
“I was getting a little animated, the first timeout in the second half,” Cormier said. “Sometimes I need to do that for me, as much as I need to do it for them. Because we were coughing the ball up. We talked about, OK, you see, we’re down at Harvard, we’re down 3, we could be tied with this team, we could be ahead by a bucket or two — it’s going to be that kind of game, so get ready for it. You believe now you can beat a team down here, right? Yeah, OK, Coach — and we go out the first three or four times and cough it up and now I’m ballistic.”
Cormier also went with a two point-guard offense, assigning 5-foot-9-inch Malik Gill to defend Saunders (13 points), who went scoreless after his 3-pointer with 13:10 remaining.
The combination of Cormier’s moves, Harvard’s lack of bench production, and the starters’ failure to recover their momentum led to a 26-2 Dartmouth run over a 9:31 span of the second half.
Only Steve Moundou-Missi scored for Harvard over nearly a 10-minute stretch, but Moundou-Missi fouled out with 6:39 remaining, with Gill converting a 3-point play for a 46-45 Dartmouth edge.
“We definitely had a letdown,” Saunders said. “They were just playing harder and they really deserved this one. They were scrapping and fighting the whole game. We came out with a lot of energy to start the second half but we didn’t sustain it and they kept chipping away and chipping away and finally broke through, and I think that was the difference in the game.
“I think we definitely were in a bit of a rhythm at the start of the second half but we have guys that can come in off the bench — that’s one of the good things about our team is that we have a lot of depth. And so, we have guys that can just step in and it’s kind of seamless when they come in. So, I think we did lose, kind of, our rhythm, but it shouldn’t happen.”
Saunders’s defense limited Dartmouth point guard Alex Mitola (18 points) for most of the contest, but Mitola recovered in the late going, scoring 15 points in the final 10:57, including 10 successive free throws in the final 1:34.
Harvard plays its next four games away, starting with Friday’s visit to Princeton.
“It doesn’t get any easier for us,” Amaker said. “We knew that, we knew how the schedule was laid out, and it makes it incredibly, incredibly hard. But it was going to be very hard no matter what happened here today. But certainly not being able to hold serve here at home just adds to the challenge and to the difficulty of what lies ahead.”