BOSTON — The Memphis Grizzlies, San Antonio Spurs, Washington Wizards and Denver Nuggets are almost never mentioned in the same breath as Ivy League basketball. But during Yale’s 88-78 victory over Harvard, scouts from all four teams were on hand to watch senior Brian Cusworth, the Crimson’s 7-foot center and potential NBA prospect.
Although Cusworth had a great game statistically, his play characterized Harvard’s performance as a whole — great on offense but poor on defense, quick-starting but slow-finishing. The Bulldogs’ win over Harvard provided a confidence boost going into last Saturday’s contest at Dartmouth. Though the streaking Big Green team had won seven of its last 10 games, the Elis snagged a 71-64 victory.
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This weekend marked Yale’s first road sweep of Harvard and Dartmouth since the 2002-’03 season.
The Crimson came out of the gate firing and it initially looked like the Bulldogs were in for a long day. Harvard logged four offensive rebounds in the first two minutes of the game and had no trouble penetrating the lane against the Eli defense, allowing them to take a quick 8-2 lead. The Bulldogs answered with a 7-0 run of their own that was punctuated by a layup from forward Ross Morin ’09 with 16:52 left, putting the Elis up 9-8. That was the Bulldogs’ only lead in the first period.
“It’s hard to say whether that was the worst first half [of the season],” head coach James Jones said. “But I wasn’t happy.”
Harvard dominated the rest of the half and led by as many as 13 at one point. The Crimson got the ball in Cusworth’s hands on almost every play and their star center responded with 17 points and six rebounds on 8-for-12 shooting. The Elis’ troubles with guarding Cusworth were compounded by injuries and foul trouble. Not only were the Bulldogs without team captain Sam Kaplan ’07, who broke his nose for the second time this season after taking a hit in practice, but Morin managed to pick up three fouls in just under four minutes of play. As a result, the Bulldogs were forced to use inexperienced center Paul Nelson ’10 along with starting center Matt Kyle ’08 in their efforts to contain Cusworth. Nelson turned in a solid performance, finishing with eight points and four rebounds in a career-high 27 minutes of action while also doing an admirable job of slowing down Cusworth in the second half.
“[Nelson’s lack of playing time] has nothing to do with his ability,” Jones said. “We had Sam [Kaplan] and he’s a senior.”
Despite the Bulldogs’ struggles on the defensive end against Harvard’s potent attack, the team managed to stay in the game through some sharp shooting of their own. The Elis made a small run at the end of the period to close the gap to 40-37, finishing the half shooting 62.5 percent from the field.
For the second straight week, the Elis were aided by technical fouls called against the opposing coach. Harvard coach Frank Sullivan picked up his first technical at the end of the first half arguing about a shooting foul that, according to the referees, occurred after the game clock had already expired. Guard Eric Flato ’09 hit both of the penalty shots at the top of the second half to pull the Bulldogs within a point. Following a jumper by Caleb Holmes ’08, the Elis took their second lead of the game at 41-40, an advantage that the Bulldogs would hold for the rest of the game.
Although the Elis shot a lower percentage from the field, they were more aggressive on offense and had 19 more free throw attempts in the second frame than in the first. The Bulldogs also overcame their free-throw-shooting woes (33 percent in the first half) and capitalized on their opportunities at the line. Holmes, after scoring only five points in the first half, finished the game with a team-high 19 points and was a perfect 9-for-9 from the line.
“We knew we had a size advantage on the wing,” Holmes said. “And we thought we could take advantage of that.”
In last week’s game against Brown, Bears coach Craig Robinson picked up his second technical foul with 7:50 remaining in the game. Although Robinson denied using the technical as a motivational ploy, his ejection seemed to catalyze his team as Brown rallied to beat the Bulldogs despite trailing for most of the game.
In Friday’s game against Harvard, the Crimson may have been using the same tactic against the Elis. The Harvard bench picked up its second technical with 6:12 remaining in the game and its team only down by three. But instead of collapsing like they did against Brown, the Bulldogs remained composed and executed on the offensive and defensive ends.
After a Cusworth jumper cut the Eli lead to three following the penalty shots, Holmes responded with a defensive rebound off a missed layup and scored the next six points for the Bulldogs. The Crimson never got closer than seven for the rest of the game.
After beating the Cantabs on their home court, the Elis traveled to Hanover the next day to take on a Dartmouth team that had gone 7-3 in its last 10 games after an 0-6 start. In their 71-64 victory, the Bulldogs’ bench outscored Dartmouth’s 14-2 and Flato paced the team with 20 points on 7-for-12 shooting from the field. After playing the entire game against Harvard, Flato still had enough energy left to play all but five minutes against the Big Green. Holmes continued his clutch free-throw shooting and hit all eight of his shots from the charity stripe, including six in the final minute. Holmes finished the weekend a perfect 17-for-17 from the line.
Beating Harvard and Dartmouth was imperative for the Bulldogs to remain in contention for the Ivy League title. With upcoming games against perennial stalwarts Princeton and Penn, the Elis had to play well this weekend to remain in the hunt for the conference championship.
“This game was so important,” Casey Hughes ’07 said after the win against Harvard. “We know if we lose another string of games, our season is essentially over.”