Thursday, December 8, 2011
Keith Wright: No moral victories for Harvard
By Jack McCluskey
STORRS, Conn. -- It would have been understandable if they had just been happy to be here.
For the first time in the long history of their program, the Harvard Crimson are ranked in the Top 25 (No. 24 ESPN/USA Today Coaches, No. 25 AP). They'd started off 8-0 for the first time in more than a decade and beaten the second ranked team in their history (No. 20 Florida State) en route to winning the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas.
So when Tommy Amaker, Keith Wright & Co. visited No. 9 UConn on Thursday night, they would've been excused if they'd felt a sense of accomplishment just getting to the game as they had. If they were happy to be where they were, a ranked team playing another ranked team on national TV.
But they weren't.
"No, this isn't a moral victory for us," Wright said after the Crimson hung with their hosts for much of the first half before the Huskies pulled away in the second half for a 67-53 win. "We're past that point of moral victories."
Their standards are higher than that. Wright, the Ivy League Player of the Year in 2010-11, and his teammates believe they should be able to beat teams like UConn, not just play with them.
"We didn't play as well as we should've, as well as we can," Wright said. "They played tough and we didn't respond the way we should have. We dug ourselves in a hole that we shouldn't have, and it's kinda hard to dig ourselves out against a good team like this.
"We have standards that we hold ourselves to and we didn't meet those tonight."
No, they didn't, but they did show they're not paper tigers, either.
After Harvard tied the game at 19, UConn used a 9-0 run to open up a 28-19 lead late in the first half. It seemed the stout Crimson defense, ranked 10th in the country coming into the game, was beginning to crack under the relentless onslaught.
But Amaker called a timeout, Kyle Casey hit a 3-pointer from the left corner at the shot-clock buzzer on the next possession and the Crimson buckled down on defense and climbed back into it. They were within a basket (30-28) at the half, even having a chance to tie or take the lead with less than 16 seconds remaining.
UConn C Andre Drummond was too tough inside for Harvard to handle.
The onslaught truly began after the break. Fueled by Jeremy Lamb and Shabazz Napier, UConn used a 17-3 run to take a commanding 16-point lead early in the second half, and while the Crimson made runs to be within single digits they never got closer than seven the rest of the way.
"We feel like when we play well and we defend we can play with anybody in the country," senior guard Oliver McNally said. "We were OK with a couple things that happened tonight, but there's definitely a lot of room for improvement in a lot of facets of our game."
The size and strength of the UConn front line of Andre Drummond and Alex Oriakhi bothered the 6-foot-8, 240-pound Wright. The senior finished 3-for-10 from the field, posting nine points and five rebounds.
"They are tremendous up front with being shot-blockers and intimidators and I thought that was a factor in the game for them against us," Amaker said. "Keith has been our best player, our leading scorer and leading rebounder. Tough night for him tonight, but I'm confident that he'll be able to bounce back and play well as we keep moving forward."
Drummond finished with 12 points on 6-for-7 shooting, most of his attempts coming at the rim and ending with the stanchion shaking. UConn outscored Harvard 30-18 in the paint.
McNally said the Crimson just didn't make the winning plays -- the ones teams that win a lot make -- and that the Crimson didn't necessarily learn anything new about themselves. They just didn't execute.
"We're the same team. We're very confident in ourselves," he said. "I think we played fine, but obviously it's a small margin of error against a team like that. Especially when you're on the road, in a hostile environment."
This season's result was very different from last season's.
When Harvard came to Hartford in late December last season, the No. 4 Huskies, in the words of Amaker, "ran us out of the gym" in an 81-52 laugher.
This season the result was the same, a UConn win, but the process was very different. And the success the Crimson have enjoyed so far this season has only served to increase the already lofty standards they set for themselves after last season's success -- they don't just want to play with the UConns of the world. They want to beat them, and they're disappointed when they don't.
"I told our kids I was very, very pleased with the effort that we brought," Amaker said. "We came here with the idea of winning and we certainly played with that kind of spirit. We have a ways to go but I think we have some bright things in front of us."
Jack McCluskey is an editor for ESPN.com and a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter @jack_mccluskey.