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Men's Basketball Rides Dominant First-Half Defense to 65-50 Victory over Brown

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The last time the Crimson walked into Pizzitola Sports Center in Providence, R.I., they experienced heartbreak at the hands of the Bears – losing on an and-one buzzer beater. Nearly a month ago, Harvard lost its first conference game of the season to this same team. The Crimson needed a different outcome on Friday if it wanted to keep their hopes of making the Ivy League Tournament alive.

Coming into this game, both Harvard (11-7, 3-3 Ivy) and Brown (10-13, 2-6 Ivy) were out of the playoff picture and a loss would tank their chances of securing a spot in the postseason. The Crimson played with a sense of desperation and matched the intensity of their Ancient Eight rival, coming away with a 65-50 victory.

“I thought we had a sense of urgency, combined with a sense of calm, which I thought was great,” head coach Tommy Amaker said. “I was really pleased with how we approached [the game] and how we were relaxed yet had the sense of urgency to come out and play really well early.”

Harvard’s victory was spurred by a dominant defensive performance in the first half. The Bears only scored eight points and shot 12 percent from the field in the period. It was Brown’s worst scoring half of the season, as the Crimson raced out to a 29-8 lead at the end of the period.

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“I thought our defense in the first 20 minutes was outstanding,” Amaker said. “And you know that it really was tough on them because they missed a lot of shots that I think normally they would make, but holding them to eight points in the first half was remarkable.”

The Bears attempted to come back in the second half, with a much stronger offensive performance in which they scored 42 points on 55 percent shooting. Nonetheless, the Crimson were able to quell Brown’s momentum thanks to an efficient scoring output from junior guard Luka Sakota. The Etobicoke, Ont., native matched his career high with 18 points, including four triples.

“I thought Luka was tremendous for 40 minutes,” Amaker said. “He did a tremendous job and really put on a great effort.”

Alongside Sakota, Harvard received valuable contributions from senior forward Mason Forbes, who has provided a much-needed inside scoring presence for a Crimson team that has been without most of its big men this season. Forbes scored 11 points on 67 percent shooting, igniting Harvard during crucial stretches of the game where the Bears were trying to go on a run.

“He had an instant impact being able to just finish around the rim to give us a couple of key dunks,” senior captain Kale Catchings said. “I don't think we realize we missed him as much as we did and it’s nice to have him back out there.”

The offensive efforts of Sakota and Forbes were emblematic of a well-balanced scoring attack from the Crimson. The team-oriented effort allowed Harvard to win despite Brown slowing down senior forward Noah Kirkwood, the team’s leading scorer, who is averaging nearly 18 points on 49 percent shooting this season. Although Kirkwood only scored 11 points this game, Harvard’s best player was still an integral part of the team’s offense.

“They loaded up against [Noah] and tried to make it hard for him,” Amaker said. “You know, as we keep going forward, it's no question that he's going to have to find his teammates and trust them. He did exactly that and it was outstanding to see. I thought he played a tremendous game by not forcing shots and not hunting his own offense.”

Kirkwood and the rest of the Crimson will have to keep up their efficient offense if they want to continue their rise through the conference standings. Harvard will face Yale on Saturday in its first back-to-back set of road games this season.

“We have a lot of new guys who haven't experienced {back-to-backs],” Catchings said. “Hopefully our senior and upperclassmen leadership will be able to lead us through this. We had 10 guys tonight so that was good and we're gonna need everyone again tomorrow.”

The game against the Bulldogs will be unconventional, as Payne Whitney Gymnasium will have no fans. The Crimson appear to be up for the challenge and will do their best to defeat a team that has always given them a bit of trouble.

“There's definitely going to be a difference in the atmosphere,” Sakota said. “It's harder to bring that energy but we got to do it. You got to find energy within ourselves and I think we're capable of doing it. It's it could be a lot worse if it's at home that we're away, so you got to treat it as any other game. Yeah, I think we'll be fine.”

-Staff writer Mahtab Shihab can be reached at mahtab.shihab@thecrimson.com.

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