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Harvard 59, Dartmouth 50

Harvard digs in for win

Second-half rally dumps Dartmouth

Harvard forward Kyle Casey skies to reject the shot of Dartmouth’s Gediminas Bertasius. Harvard forward Kyle Casey skies to reject the shot of Dartmouth’s Gediminas Bertasius. (Barry Chin/Globe Staff)
By Frank Dell’Apa
Globe Staff / January 23, 2011

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Harvard spent the first half of yesterday’s 59-50 win over visiting Dartmouth performing like a middle-of-the-pack Ivy League team. But the Crimson defense got in synch in the second half as Harvard overcame a 12-point deficit, confirming expectations as a title contender.

“I thought Dartmouth played a tremendous game, particularly in the first half,’’ Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said. “And I thought we showed a great deal of toughness and grit to be able to dig one out when it wasn’t going necessarily our way. Things weren’t as easily flowing for us as they have been. We certainly didn’t play as well as we’d like, but give Dartmouth credit for the way they played the first 20 minutes and the beginning of the second half.’’

Harvard (13-3, 2-0) was playing without its No. 2 scorer, guard Christian Webster (hip pointer), who, according to Amaker, is expected to return for Friday’s game against Columbia.

Dartmouth (4-12, 0-2) went on 11-0 and 7-0 runs in taking a 32-26 halftime lead. Dartmouth found holes on the perimeter as Harvard extended its matchup zone.

An R.J. Griffin (game-high 20 points) 3-pointer gave Dartmouth a 40-28 advantage with 15:33 remaining. But Harvard then went on a 24-4 run to take a 52-44 edge on Brandyn Curry’s foul shot with 1:52 left. After Griffin’s three, Dartmouth scored only once, on a David Ruffell 16-footer with 7:57 remaining, until Griffin’s two free throws with 2:34 to go. Another Griffin 3-pointer cut Dartmouth’s deficit to 52-47 with 1:41 remaining. But Harvard, which placed four players in double figures, led by freshman Laurent Rivard with 13 points, closed things out on free throws and a Kyle Casey layup off a steal.

“We switched defenses and that changed the rhythm a little,’’ Amaker said of Harvard’s second-half strategy. “We got some confidence as we got some stops and got up the floor and inched our way back in it. It’s the same zone but I thought we did a better job of communicating and getting matched. We don’t use it a lot but we certainly needed it today.’’

Curry and reserve Matt Brown sparked the defense, Harvard capitalizing on stops to score in transition in the second half.

“He’s a tough kid, he’s been really good for us all year,’’ Amaker said of Curry. “He’s a catalyst, making plays for others. You saw a stretch there where he’s slicing and dicing and finding guys and making the extra pass. We want him to think of himself a little like [Rajon] Rondo — I know we’re stretching things — but we like for him to think like a playmaker, an assist guy, who’s going to get rebounds and steals, and he does a lot of those things for us.’’

Curry started a 15-0 run with a free throw to cut Harvard’s deficit to 42-40 with 7:57 remaining. Curry hit two more foul shots off a steal, then fed Keith Wright for a dunk and a 44-42 lead with 5:50 remaining.

“We didn’t live up to our identity in the first half,’’ Curry said. “We just felt like they wanted it more than us, they were more hungry. [Amaker] challenged us at halftime to show some pride and dig in and I think we responded well.

“When we’re defending well and we’re after it, and we’ve got a lot of energy on defense, that just carries over offensively. When our defense is not as good, as in the first half, we’re flat on offense and nobody’s hitting the boards. Our defense definitely starts our offense.’’

Curry is playing for a former star point guard and modeling his game after an NBA All-Star.

“He’s definitely demanding, he’s on my case all the time, which is great,’’ Curry said of Amaker. “He expects a lot out of me to take care of the ball, to be our best defender on the ball, to be our playmaker, and coming from him — he’s been there and done it. So, I’m just learning everything possible from him and try to get better every day.

“He definitely wants me play like Rondo runs the offense — always being a playmaker, hitting the boards, and just running the team. I’m fine with that. I like Rondo, he’s a superstar. I have no problem trying to be like that at all.’’

Frank Dell’Apa can be reached at f_dellapa@globe.com.