BOSTON — The expectations have never been higher for the Harvard men’s basketball team. The Crimson made their second consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament last March, making it to the Round of 32 after upsetting No. 3 New Mexico. Tommy Amaker’s team returns virtually every key player while adding highly-touted recruit Zena Edosomwan and having Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry rejoin the program.
The Crimson got a good fight from the Crusaders, but in the end Curry, Siyani Chambers, and reserve forward Jonah Travis made the plays down the stretch to come away with an 82-72 win in the finale of the Coaches vs. Cancer tripleheader at the TD Garden. Travis’ 20-point, 10-rebound performance in 22 minutes overshadowed the return of Casey and Curry, but also showed how scary this Harvard team can be.
“I think naturally a lot of the players on our team are unselfish,” Harvard forward Wesley Saunders said. “That is kind of something we don’t have to worry about. We do it naturally. So anybody, on any given night as the opportunity to have a great game just as Jonah showed. He came in and dominated the game.”
Casey had the first bucket on the night with a two-handed slam, though those would be two of his four points on the evening, being saddled with foul trouble that ended when he got hit with his fifth with more than six minutes to go in the contest. Travis, who played 16.5 minutes per game last season, doubled his scoring average from a year ago in the first half when he had 12 points and grabbed four rebounds coming off the bench.
“I know what coaches expects of me,” Travis said. “And that’s when I’m on the court to come in with energy and come in there with a bang and provide what we need when I’m in there. I know what I need to do.
“My job is to provide energy for the team and if that helps them get over the hump or the slow start we had then that’s what I need to do. They needed me to grab rebounds, set screens and score when I was open, and that’s what I did.”
One of the questions for the Crimson was how the would incorporate Casey and Curry — two captains from the 2011-2012 team that made the program’s first tournament — back in to the lineup with some much talent. Casey was plagued with foul trouble, but Curry and returning point guard Siyani Chambers looked good playing alongside each other in the Crimson back court.
“It’s great to have those two,” Saunders said. “They compliment each other really well. Just to have more ball handlers on the court, who can relieve pressure and make plays for everybody on the court is a luxury to have and I think they really are the driving force of our team. They are the two-headed monster that makes our team go.”
Chambers entered the break with zero points and two assists, but after Holy Cross took a one-point lead with under six minutes to play, Chambers responded with a one-man 7-0 run, capped off by a corner three he drained off an assist by Curry.
“We had kind of thinking that for a while to have both of those kids on the floor for us as much as possible together,” Amaker said. “I think our team functions better when they are out there. They can penetrate and drive a little bit more and they are our two best playmakers in addition to Wesley. The more ball handlers and playmakers you can have on the floor, in our system, the better.”
The bad news for Harvard came after the game when Amaker announced that Kenyatta Smith is out indefinitely with a leg injury. The 6-foot-8 junior hurts the Crimson, but Travis’ career night showed something that could be a season-long theme for the Ivy League favorite.
“In any given day, in any given night it could be anyone who provides the necessary play or plays that can propel us to having a positive performance,” Amaker said.