PHILADELPHIA – As the clock ticked down and the Penn faithful rose to their feet inside the Palestra, Coach Tommy Amaker took a quick look at the scoreboard in dismay as Harvard men’s basketball lost another agonizingly close game – falling to the Quakers by a 82-74 margin.
For a third straight contest and a fourth time in five games, the Crimson (11-10, 3-6 Ivy) mounted a comeback in a critical game, tying the score in Philadelphia with under two minutes to play. After losing three games to Ivy rivals by a combined 10 points – one to Penn in Cambridge and back-to-back losses to Yale – completing Saturday’s comeback at the Ivy League’s premier venue would have gone a long way towards reversing Harvard’s fortune this season. A series of clutch shots by guard Jordan Dingle, including a banked three-pointer as the shot clock expired, ensured that the Crimson would lose yet another heartbreaker.
“You’ve got to give them credit, and you’ve got to give him credit in particular,” said Amaker of Dingle’s 33-point performance, which took place just 15 days after the sophomore scored 31 points at Lavietes Pavilion to lead Penn (11-12, 8-2) to a 78-74 win at Cambridge. “We need something to fall our way a little bit, that’s not an excuse or anything, but you need that.”
Amaker’s remarks echo the frustration that many involved in the men’s basketball program will certainly be feeling, as Harvard sits in sixth place in the Ivy League with just five games remaining. The past two weeks have brought four losses that came on a knife’s edge, leaving the Crimson on the brink of desperation in the battle for an Ivy League playoff spot.
With Lavietes Pavilion set to play host to this year’s Ancient Eight tournament, failing to finish the season in the top four and make the semifinals would leave a particularly bitter taste for the men’s basketball program given its recent history in the Ivy League postseason. Harvard has lost the past two Ivy League championship games in true road settings and has long looked forward to hosting the tournament in Cambridge after missing out on the opportunity to do so in 2020 due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Saturday afternoon’s game featured the type of seesaw action that the Crimson is well-accustomed to in battles with Coach Steve Donohue’s Penn Quakers. Harvard clawed its way back from an eight point second-half deficit, in large part due to the inspired play of first-year guard Evan Nelson, who led the team in scoring. Nelson scored a career-high 19 points, drilling all five of his three-pointers and bringing the Crimson back into the game on numerous occasions as the Quakers looked to pull away.
“It’s a lot of fun, playing at the Palestra, it’s obviously a coveted and historic arena,” Nelson said. “But it would have felt a lot better to get this win, without a doubt.”
Nelson’s play was all the more crucial with fellow first-year Louis Lesmond’s continued absence from the rotation due to injury, the latest in an unrelenting string of injuries that Harvard has been forced to deal with this season. His resurgence is perhaps even more necessary as a third guard capable of scoring alongside junior Luka Sakota and senior Noah Kirkwood, as the two have borne the brunt of opposing teams’ defensive attention in the past few weeks. The Canadian backcourt duo have been forced to work extremely hard for high-quality looks with Lesmond, Chris Ledlum, and Idan Tretout sidelined with various injuries, combining for 26 points against Penn defense that seemed hell-bent on neutralizing them.
Donohue and Penn employed a variety of defensive tactics on Saturday, including doubling Kirkwood on the final play of the half, pulling a defender away from first-year guard Denham Wojcik. Wojcik, who has featured as the starting point guard for Coach Amaker in all but one of Harvard’s Ivy League games, has struggled significantly to find his shooting touch thus far, converting on 22% of his field goals and just 2-of-21 from beyond the arc.
Nelson’s emergence as a viable scoring threat and potential starter could be just what the Crimson need, particularly to shoulder some of the scoring burden that Kirkwood and Sakota have carried in the backcourt thus far. The Tucson, Arizona. native credited the leadership of older players as a source of mentorship and confidence in him, with Saturday afternoon’s contest representing just the eighth game in Nelson’s young career.
“It’s definitely a team thing,” Nelson said. “From Spencer, to Noah, Mason, and Kale, all those guys have taken it upon themselves to take me under their wing.”
Though Nelson’s prolific scoring on Saturday was an encouraging sign, time is running out for men’s basketball. With a two game homestand against the New York schools upcoming, anything shy of a 2-0 weekend would almost certainly eliminate Harvard from Ivy League tournament contention. Perhaps this is how the NCAA tournament drought must end for the Crimson: not with a #1 seed and a clear path to Ivy Madness, but through what essentially amounts to playoff games beginning in mid-February.
“You know, it’s certainly disappointing,” said Amaker of the team’s recent run of narrow defeats. “But it hasn’t demoralized us.”
Harvard has certainly shown no quit thus far, even after consecutive gut-wrenching losses. Players like sophomore Sam Silverstein, senior captain Kale Catchings, and others have shown a willingness to fill in in unexpected places due to injury. But with March looming, the road to make the tournament is certainly long, and the Crimson’s odds are maybe even longer. But an undefeated weekend against Columbia and Cornell – the team Harvard is chasing – would provide a jolt that the Crimson sorely needs after three straight hard-luck losses. In Ancient Eight basketball, anything is possible.
Perhaps it’s Nelson that’ll be the spark. Or Kirkwood, who has taken the team on his shoulders on several occasions this season and recently tallied his 1000th point for Harvard men’s basketball. Or an unexpected hero – maybe another buzzer beater from Sakota. But with the Ivy League tournament less than a month away, there is suddenly very little room for error.
— Staff writer Amir Mamdani can be reached at email@example.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @AmirMamdani22.