The message that Harvard coach Tommy Amaker tried to get across to his team going into the final weekend of the regular season was that no matter how the unpredictable Ivy League dominoes fell, the Crimson had to take care of what they could control.
By winning their final two games, they could put themselves in position to earn a share of the regular-season Ivy League title.
Everything else was out of their hands.
“Our mantra coming into this season was just take care of business and see what happens,” said senior captain Chris Egi. “We stayed true to our motto. We were focused on winning our game and just be ready if the opportunity came.”
They got a favor from their archrival Yale Friday night. The Bulldogs’ upset of first-place Penn not only gave them a chance to regular-season champions, but they’d also gave them a chance to earn the top seed in next week’s conference tournament by virtue of a tiebreaker over Penn.
But after outlasting Cornell in double overtime on Friday, the Crimson had to finish out the season with a win over Columbia at Lavietes Pavilion.
Harvard’s 93-74 win over Columbia finished the job, giving the Crimson (17-12, 12-2) a share of the regular-season title and giving them pole position going into the Ivy League’s second conference tournament next week at The Palestra in Philadelphia.
“One of the concerns you have going into the game was it was all just supposed to happen for us,” Amaker said. “Like you can fall into that human nature thought and feeling that, because we’re at home, it’s senior night, and we’re good guys, whatever the thoughts can be, it’s just supposed to go our way. But we have to make it go our way. And part of that is turning the page pretty quickly.”
Egi, who was a freshman when the Crimson won its last Ivy crown, was in the middle of the celebration at halfcourt, hoisting the championship trophy.
“That’s surreal,” Egi said. “I still can’t put into words how that feels. I came here four years ago, freshman, got an opportunity to win a championship my freshman year. And you know, being a cocky freshman, I’m like ‘I’m coming home with three more of these.
“The way life goes, that stuff isn’t how it always happens. Coming into this senior year, having a chance to win a championship and then being able to win it, definitely don’t take that for granted. You’re going to be a champion forever.”
The Crimson spread the wealth with four players scoring in double figures. Corey Johnson led the way with 17 points, knocking down 5 of 8 shots from 3-point range. Christian Juzang finished with 16 points, 7 assists, and 4 rebounds. Seth Towns put in a 13-point, 10-rebound double-double. Chris Lewis finished with 14 points and nine boards.
The Crimson shot 62.7 percent as a team from the field. Their 17 3-pointers were one shy of a school record.
“We shoot the ball very well as a team,” Johnson said. “We have a lot of weapons behind the arc. Every game, one person can go off and hit a lot of shots . . . Tonight they left me open, so I hit a couple of big shots.”
The Crimson took a 45-34 lead into the half. By the midway point in the second half, Columbia (8-19, 5-9) was in a 20-point hole and the window on its season was closing.
The Crimson learned after the game that they will face Cornell in the opening round of the tournament.
In the meantime, they relished the turnaround of a season that started rocky in the nonconference schedule, but ended with eight wins in their final nine games.
“The way this team has responded this season to wanting to finish strong and finish right, it shows a lot of growth and development,” Amaker said. “This is a mark in the history of our program for this particular team that they’ve been able to solidify a legacy for this senior class and for the younger kids now that are still grinding and finding their way and understanding what it takes to be champions.”Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.