Behind a career-high 29 points from senior Agunwa Okolie, the Harvard men’s basketball team opened Ivy League play with a win over the visiting Dartmouth Big Green. The Crimson (7-8, 1-0 Ivy league) shot 53 percent from the field, with Okolie making nine of his 11 shots and all 10 of his free throws.
Down the stretch, Okolie and senior Patrick Steeves took over for Harvard. The duo had the Crimson’s final 17 points, with Okolie scoring the final 10—including a three-pointer with 52 seconds remaining that pushed the lead to six. After Dartmouth freshman forward Evan Boudreaux answered with a triple on the other end, Okolie had four straight free throws to close out the Big Green (4-9, 0-1).
“It was a hell of a game,” Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said. “They were really excited in the locker room and they should have been. This is one of those moments where as a coach you’re proud of your kids.”
After talking all week about teaching the underclassmen how Ivy League basketball differed from non-conference play, the seniors went out and led by example Saturday. Okolie, Steeves—who set a career high himself with 20 points—and senior Evan Cummins combined for 59 points, 17 rebounds, and seven assists on the day. The trio assisted or scored all but five second half baskets.
With the team getting just six combined points from its starting freshman backcourt of Tommy McCarthy and Corey Johnson—who both posted season lows in points—the seniors stepped up to take on the offensive load. As a group, the Class of 2016 took 62 percent of the team’s shots, more than twice their season average, making 21 of 33 attempts from the field.
“I thought [Okolie’s] play as a senior was tremendous,” Amaker said. “I thought Pat Steeves as a senior was outstanding. I thought Evan Cummins playing as a senior, for Evan to kind of quarterback our team from the back line of our defense and a big block he had late. Those three guys really, really stepped forward as veteran guys.”
For most of the game, however, the Crimson struggled to create distance between themselves and the visitors. Dartmouth had little problem generating quality shots all afternoon, with Boudreaux and sophomore Miles Wright combining for 44 points on just 29 shots. In the first half, Wright had 15 in the first 16 minutes as the Big Green ran out to a 32-23 lead.
It was Harvard’s seniors that responded. On the next possession, Okolie drove the lane and slipped by Wright for a three-point play. Two possessions later, Steeves beat his man off the dribble for a layup. Given more space a minute later, he drilled a three—his third of the half—to cut the lead to five.
After another Okolie layup and a Dartmouth shot clock violation, the Crimson set up a play for Steeves at the top of the key with five seconds to go. With two Big Green defenders on him, the senior wheeled and fired a pass to Johnson. Five feet behind the arc, the freshman never hesitated—drilling a three to tie the game heading into the break.
“The way we ended the first half on a little bit of a momentum play … we thought if we got out of the blocks we could created some separation,” Amaker said.
Out of the break, Harvard did just that, dominating the first four minutes—extending its lead to seven with 16:14 to go on another Steeves three. However, Dartmouth came right back with a Wright three, scoring six straight to cut the lead to one.
The ensuing 12 minutes featured two lead changes and five ties as neither team was able to push a lead beyond three. Despite struggling to get leading scorer junior Zena Edosomwan (eight points, eight rebounds) going offensively, the Crimson overcame stretches of turnovers by holding the Big Green to just 34 percent shooting in the second period.
Afterwards, Amaker noted the importance of legacy for his seniors, who have the opportunity to become the second Harvard graduating class ever to win four Ivy League championships.
“We’ve touched on different things as seniors and how wonderful your senior year can be and how meaningful that is,” Amaker said. “Having been a senior myself and played, I make sure that they know how you’re going to remember it for the rest of your life.”
—Staff writer David Freed can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.