Noah Kirkwood secured the rebound and the thousand-plus fans at Lavietes Pavilion breathed a huge sigh of relief as Harvard earned a gritty victory over Cornell on Saturday, squeaking past the Big Red 77-72 in overtime to avenge its loss in Ithaca last month and stay in the hunt for the fourth and final spot in the Ivy League Tournament.
The Crimson (13-10, 5-6 Ivy League) led for almost the entire game and by as many as 19 points before an 18-0 Cornell run allowed the Big Red (13-10, 5-7 Ivy) to take their first lead of the game with three minutes left. But Harvard made enough stops and Kirkwood enough plays to send the game to overtime, and the Crimson controlled the extra session from start to finish.
“There’s never a dull moment in the Ivy League,” said head coach Tommy Amaker. “So many chances — not even talking about being up by a lot, to win the game there — but even when it got tight, so many shots and opportunities, and it was crazy.”
The final few minutes of regulation were extremely tense. Both teams missed critical free throws down the stretch, and the final 2:30 of regulation featured three ties and a chance for both teams to win the game in the final few seconds. A missed layup by freshman guard Evan Nelson and an errant half court heave by Cornell’s Dean Noll sent the game to overtime, where Harvard won the tip, got a quick layup from Kirkwood, and never looked back.
It was only fitting that a Kirkwood rebound sealed the game for the Crimson. The senior guard and the Ivy League’s third leading scorer led the way throughout, pacing Harvard with 31 efficient points, eight rebounds, four assists, and two steals. Kirkwood excelled despite clearly being Cornell’s main defensive priority. The Ottawa, Ont., native has faced his fair share of double teams this season, but the Big Red doubled him more frequently and earlier in the shot clock than any team the Crimson had yet faced.
“I’ve seen double teams usually in the post or maybe along the wing,” said Kirkwood, “But I was even so high up near half court almost and they were doubling. So when that happens, I think that’s beneficial to us because then we play four on three.”
While Kirkwood was held in check during Cornell’s run, he came through down the stretch, hitting a jumper to knot the game at 62 and end a nine minute stretch without a Harvard basket before adding four points in overtime, when he was finally able to get out in transition and find the space that the Big Red was so adamant to deny him.
“What are you going to say about Kirkwood?” asked Amaker rhetorically. “His production throughout the game was just tremendous, and he made every right play and decision. Even when they were doubling him he found the open guys and I was just really pleased with his performance. He was the best player on the floor.”
The Crimson lit it up offensively in the first half, hitting seven threes and shooting 65 percent from the floor as Harvard entered the break up 43-26. Junior guard Luka Sakota matched his Ivy League season high with 18 points, while senior forward Kale Catchings added 10 points and three enormous offensive rebounds.
Cornell, meanwhile, looked largely listless in the first half after traveling from Hanover, where it suffered a disheartening defeat to Dartmouth on Friday night. But even after the Crimson jumped out to a big lead, the specter of a big comeback always loomed because of Cornell’s propensity to push the ball in transition and score points in a hurry. The Big Red’s depth and playing style has allowed it to average over 80 points per game and rank in the top 10 in pace nationally.
“Cornell was battling and fighting and we knew, no matter what lead we had, that they’re going to have opportunities because of their style,” said Amaker. “It’s just hard to — you can’t simulate that, and once they see the thing starting to go downhill a little bit, it’s hard to stop them. So you give them all the credit in the world for how hard they played to get back in it and to take the lead.”
Harvard’s lack of depth, due in large part to the rash of injuries that befell the team this year and particularly in recent weeks, was nearly decisive. Cornell played 13 players and won the points off the bench battle 45 to nine. The Big Red, one of the highest-frequency three-point shooting teams in the country, took over half of its shots from long range but never really gained momentum from beyond the arc. Yet Cornell found plenty of room to maneuver inside the paint, winning the points in the paint battle 40-22 and shooting a stellar 75 percent from two-point range as the Big Red continued to limit its attempts from midrange.
“That’s one of their strengths, being able to play so deep into their roster,” said senior center Mason Forbes. “And that’s something that can become taxing on you that they have so many subs that they can put in there, but I feel like we handled it pretty well throughout the game.”
The Crimson will not get many style points for its victory on Saturday, but the win nevertheless propels it to fourth in the Ivy League, a half-game ahead of Cornell. A monumental home-and-home against Princeton (19-5, 9-2 Ivy), which knocked off Yale on Saturday to pull into a tie atop the conference, awaits.
— Staff writer Lev Cohen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @LevTHC.