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Harvard 77, Columbia 66

Harvard streak at 12

Crimson stuff visiting Lions

Guard Brandyn Curry did a little bit of everything — 9 points, 7 assists, 4 steals — for Harvard. Guard Brandyn Curry did a little bit of everything — 9 points, 7 assists, 4 steals — for Harvard. (Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff)
By Frank Dell’Apa
Globe Staff / January 29, 2011

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Harvard University is off to its best start since the 1945-46 season. But coach Tommy Amaker is hoping the Crimson can remain consistent as they take a 12-game home winning streak into tonight’s Ivy League contest against Cornell.

“One of the things we need to do is — we’re still very young, the youngest team in our league,’’ Amaker said after a 77-66 win over Columbia last night. “Can we have a consistent rhythm to our team? That’s something we’re searching for right now and we’re hoping we’ll have it [tonight].’’

Harvard (14-3, 3-0) might not be able to match the 19-game home win streak set between December 1921 and January 1923, or go as deep in the NCAA Tournament as the 1945-46 team (quarterfinalist). But Harvard is unbeaten at Lavietes Pavilion since Feb. 19, 2010 (a 79-70 loss to Cornell), and has won seven consecutive games overall since Dec. 22.

“We’ve talked about that, we’ve talked about making this an environment where we can be an intimidating kind of team in here,’’ Amaker said. “And that’s worked for us. The students have been tremendous and we play a style — it seems like that helps fans get behind our team, because we’re trying to start with our defense, and get up the floor and have some fun offensively.’’

Harvard used that formula to rout Columbia (11-6, 2-1) in the second half. But the Lions pushed the pace and led by as many as 4 points in the opening half as Noruwa Agho led the way.

But the Crimson took command early in the second half as Oliver McNally had 6 points and three assists during a 15-3 run over a 4:01 span.

Columbia was within 39-38 after a Brian Barbour foul shot and had a chance to take the lead. But Harvard increased its pressure and took control.

The Crimson began picking up at three-quarter court and scored 6 points in 39 seconds. A blocked shot led to a McNally layup. Then, Kyle Casey dunked off a steal and Keith Wright dunked off a McNally feed in transition for a 45-38 lead with 15:55 remaining. Columbia called three timeouts in an attempt to recover, but Harvard maintained its momentum as Christian Webster hit a 3-pointer and Wright dunked off a McNally pass to make it 50-41 with 14:28 left.

After four McNally foul shots, Agho (27 points) converted a 3-point play to pull Columbia within 54-44 with 11:51 remaining.

Webster, who missed Harvard’s 59-50 win over Dartmouth last Saturday with a hip pointer, returned to the starting lineup and got into a groove in the late going, hitting three successive 3-pointers in a 2:22 span, the last upping the advantage to 71-51 with 4:55 to go.

“We were able to get some of those shots because we’re looking to go inside too much,’’ Amaker said.

The low-post play of Casey (17 points, 13 rebounds) and Wright set up Harvard’s inside-out passing game and helped the Crimson outrebound Columbia, 40-30.

But it was the backcourt of McNally and Brandyn Curry (9 points, 7 assists, 4 steals), plus substitute Matt Brown, that defused Columbia’s perimeter shooting and started the transition game during the second half.

“Their guards are crafty and slithery,’’ Amaker said of Agho and Barbour. “We’re better when we can push up a little bit. And we’re certainly better when we can do that at home and we have our home crowd behind us and we can gather some energy.’’

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