Men’s hoops downs defending champ

by Alexander Agadjanian | 1/24/16 7:00pm

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Men's basketball avenged an earlier loss to Harvard.
by Seamore Zhu / The Dartmouth

For the first time since 2008, the Big Green (7-9, 1-1 Ivy) beat Harvard University (9-9, 1-1 Ivy) on its home floor in Leede Arena by a count of 63-50, earning its first conference victory — a victory that is crucial in keeping the team’s Ivy title hopes alive.

Falling behind by double-digits against its vaunted Ivy League rival, Dartmouth found itself in dire straits deep into the second half last Saturday night. Plagued by foul trouble that cost two of its top players — Miles Wright ’18 and Connor Boehm ’16 — time on the court and all the while ensnared in a seemingly game-defining offensive drought, the Big Green stood on the precipice of squandering another dominant effort against the Crimson for the second time this season.

Yet it was only a matter of minutes until Dartmouth furiously surged back amid a home atmosphere that grew increasingly more raucous by the minute. A pair of unheralded stars off the bench chiefly fueled the deafening comeback, as guards Malik Gill ’16 and Taylor Johnson ’18 led a dominant finish to the game, helping the Big Green outscore the visitors 18-6 over the last seven minutes.

“This is the last time the senior class is playing against Harvard, and we never beat them in Hanover,” Gill said after the game. “So to get a win against our rivals, the five-time champions [in the last five years], at home, it’s a great feeling. It’s one of the best feelings I’ve felt in college since I’ve been here.”

Evan Boudreaux ’19 offered another stellar effort, leading the team with 18 points and tacked on 13 boards to notch a double-double, but the true ascendant performers in the upset win came off the bench — namely in Gill and Johnson. Furthermore, the high-stakes context in which they thrived amplified the importance of the duo’s emergence.

Having gone scoreless for the first 7:12 minutes of the second half off a 0-7 shooting mark, the Big Green saw a one-point advantage at the break quickly evaporate as Harvard rattled off a 12-0 run to start the new half. Boudreaux finally snapped this cold streak with a pair of free throws, but Dartmouth still trailed 40-29 with under 12 minutes to play.

Yet it did not take long for the tides to change. It all started at the 11:28 mark, when Gill scored the team’s first field goal of the half with a driving layup. On the ensuing Harvard possession, the senior grabbed a steal, got fouled and sank two free throws to further narrow the margin. One minute later, another steal by Gill jumpstarted the offense, as the guard created enough space to swing it to Boudreaux who knocked down an open three.

“It was just making sure we ran hard cuts, set good screens and took the shots with confidence,” Boudreaux said. “I think those were huge keys to what we did in the second half.”

Less than a minute passed before the onslaught reached one of its peaks. With the shot clock dwindling down, Johnson — who, entering with a 3.5 points per game average, hardly represented the first offensive option — pulled up a few feet off the top of the key and drilled a three to the delight of a zealous crowd. The cold-blooded trey capped a blazing 12-0 run that saw Dartmouth rebuild a lead at 41-40, the team’s first since its edge at halftime.

After the Crimson recaptured the lead momentarily, Gill converted a driving score to pull back ahead, and after Johnson followed another three-point dagger with two free throws, Dartmouth arrived at its biggest lead of the game up to that point at 50-44.

“Everyone just stayed focused and kept moving the ball, and things started clicking,” Johnson said.

Moreover, the offensive explosion was matched by a suffocating display on the other end. Once again, Gill and Johnson spearheaded the effort, as the two guards wreaked defensive havoc on the perimeter, tearing the ball away from Harvard players and constantly disrupting the opposing offense. Gill recorded two steals and Johnson added another during one four-minute stretch, and by the end of the night Gill finished with four.

For the senior guard, this defensive lockdown translated to a renewal of sharpness and intensity on the offensive end, a notion echoed by his teammate Boudreaux as well.

“We really buckled down on defense,” Gill said about the latter part of the second half. “We struggled to score coming out in the second half, we were too focused on offense. [But] we settled down, got some [defensive] stops and that propelled our offense.”

Seeing itself lose every last drop of momentum, Harvard suffered tremendously from poor free-throw shooting as well. Star big man Zena Edosomwan led the Crimson all night with a crafty and overpowering performance in the paint — finishing with 18 points — but went 2-8 from the charity stripe in the second half, gifting Dartmouth space to grow its lead.

For Gill, Saturday’s contest marked the second straight year in which he played a key role in a victory against Harvard. One day shy of exactly a year ago, the senior guard led a similar surge on both the offensive and defensive ends of the court to lead a comeback win in Cambridge.

In total by the end of the night, Dartmouth’s bench players outscored Harvard’s 33-13. Gill and Johnson combined to provide 21 of those points — 11 and 10, respectively — all of which importantly came in the last 12 minutes of the game.

A combination of airtight defense and sloppy offensive coordination typified much of the night for both sides. In the first five minutes, Harvard had already committed four turnovers, while Dartmouth had three miscues. The Crimson ultimately ended with 14, while the Big Green had overcome 17 miscues of their own. Nevertheless, Dartmouth emerged as the main beneficiary of this defensive scrum of a game and caught fired when it mattered most.

“I think it’s good because Harvard has such a history of winning the last few years, and they’re still a good team so it shows that we can play with some good teams,” Johnson said about his team’s triumph. “I think [this win] means we can compete with every team in the Ivy League.”

Having avenged a 77-70 defeat to the same Harvard team two weeks ago, Dartmouth will now seek to extend a three-game win streak in completing its five-game homestand. That starts with facing Columbia University at 7 p.m. next Friday, and Cornell University at the same time the next day.