Evan Cummins’s name isn’t on the list of Harvard’s probable starters. Nor is it on the list of players who normally come off the bench. And yet, the freshman was on the floor to start the Crimson’s game against Fordham on Saturday at Lavietes Pavilion.
It was part of coach Tommy Amaker’s punitive plan, using a starting lineup that contained only two of the team’s usual grouping, Siyani Chambers and Wesley Saunders. Amaker was aiming to send a message after an unimpressive defensive effort in a loss to Vermont on Tuesday, a message he hammered home all week.
“I hope so,” Amaker said, when asked if it was a wake-up call for the team. “We’re very hopeful. Our program has been built on defense. We’ve been an outstanding defensive team throughout our time here, as we’ve grown our program and developed it.
“That’s been the No. 1 thing in our identity. I was disappointed that somehow we’ve lost sight of that. But we were going to make a statement that that’s what we’re going to hang our hats on.”
After the game against Vermont, Amaker declared the lineup “open,” a chance for anyone to take a spot. Play the best defensively in practice, and a starting slot was yours.
That was how Harvard ended up with Cummins, Agunwa Okolie, and Michael Hall, in addition to Chambers and Saunders on the floor at the opening tip.
“Those guys earned it,” Amaker said, though he wasn’t sure whether he would continue with the same tact in the Crimson’s next game, at Boston College on Tuesday.
“Defensively, last game, we allowed a lot of points to a team that averages a lot lower than we allowed,” sophomore Jonah Travis said. “That was a personal insult to us. We took that as a challenge.”
It was all the players talked about all week, all they focused on.
Early, though, it didn’t seem like the strategy was going to work. Over the first 10 minutes of the first half, Harvard went down by 11 points (21-10) before beginning a 19-2 run that consisted of a large dose of Travis.
“I thought they were kind of losing track of me,” he said. “Because they were losing track of me sometimes, I got to kind of slide in and try and grab the rebound. That created great opportunity.”
Travis finished the first half with 12 points and six rebounds in just nine minutes, and ended up with 16 points and 12 rebounds (four offensive) over 22 minutes. It would have been more, too, had Travis’s minutes not been limited by his four fouls.
“You see his numbers and his line and his toughness, what he gave us out on the court,” Amaker said. “I think 12 rebounds in 22 minutes is saying a lot.
“Jonah is a heart-and-soul kid. When we recruited him, we talked to him extensively about what he would bring to our program — a toughness and a grit and a grind and a very positive, complementary way, obviously, an undersized post player. He wouldn’t be outworked. It would be very difficult to out-tough him.”
Harvard and Amaker hadn’t seen that from Travis. They saw it on Saturday, and it was welcome.
“Certainly today he got back to his identity, and what we really feel was important for him,” Amaker said. “I was very pleased and very proud of him for his effort and how he displayed his heart and soul today.”
It wasn’t perfect for the Crimson, though. They committed 20 turnovers, and allowed the Rams to grab 19 offensive rebounds among their 38 total.
After Harvard went on that first-half run, it pulled away a bit in the second half. The Crimson, who got a game-high 17 points from Saunders, got their lead up to 9 points with 13:02 to go, and then to 12 with 4:45 left, their improved defense holding Fordham to 37.8 percent from the field after the break.
“We needed to come together and be a family,” Travis said. “Last year, we had a lot more togetherness than we did this year. And that’s partly why we thought we struggled a lot, because we just weren’t as together as we needed to be.”