BOSTON -- Technically, Wednesday night’s matchup at Matthews Arena was a battle of conference champions.
Northeastern won the CAA regular-season title in 2012-13, the first in school history, before losing in the conference tourney and landing in the NIT. Harvard won the Ivy outright for the second straight season, playing in the Big Dance for the second straight season and winning its first game in the NCAA tourney before being knocked out.
So technically, this was a meeting of championship-caliber teams. But that’s a bit misleading, as the Huskies lost two key contributors after the season (Jonathan Lee and Joel Smith) and another key contributor early this season (Quincy Ford will miss the rest of the season after undergoing back surgery later this week) while the Crimson lost no one.
So though the Huskies were game in their home opener, making run after run at the Crimson, they just couldn’t make enough plays when it counted and fell 72-64.
“They have a very confident group of players that have been tested in NCAA tournament,” Northeastern coach Bill Coen said. “I think they know how to win close basketball games. I thought we got the game to where it could go either way and I think their experience showed. Ultimately I thought that gave them the edge tonight.”
Harvard led by as many as 11 points in a game Tommy Amaker called “gritty.” And every time the Huskies made a run, the Crimson answered immediately.
Reggie Spencer started a run of eight straight points to take a three-point lead for Northeastern in the first half, but Kyle Casey made the next two buckets to put Harvard back ahead. Northeastern cut the lead to five in the second half, and Wesley Saunders made a driving, spinning, left-handed layup through contact to push the lead back to seven (though he missed the free throw to negate the and-1).
“I thought it was a game of runs,” Amaker said. “We kind of had a margin there of double digits, they battled back and I thought we did a nice job of maintaining composure. I was really pleased that we were able to make some critical plays.”
Though Harvard and Northeastern are perhaps best known for the high-profile guards they’ve produced lately (Jeremy Lin for the Crimson, Jose Juan Barea for the Huskies), the strength of both squads in 2013-14 may just be in the frontcourt.
Scott Eatherton entered the game one of the nation’s leaders in double-doubles, averaging 16.3 points and 10.6 rebounds per game for the Huskies. Casey, the 2009-10 Ivy League Rookie of the Year, was averaging a solid 9.8 points and 5.5 rebounds a game for the Crimson.
Both teams seemed to make a concerted effort to feed the post in the first half, and at the break Casey (12) and Spencer (10) led their respective teams in scoring.
The tough inside play continued after the intermission. And when Casey and Steve Moundou-Missi each picked up their fourth fouls with about 11 minutes left in the second half, Amaker was forced to go to his bench.
Sophomore Evan Cummins answered the call.
The Westborough, Mass., native and Northfield Mount Hermon product pitched in a career-high 10 points and six rebounds, helping stave off another double-double by Eatherton (17 points and 11 rebounds, his sixth double-double of the season).
“What I really thought won the game for them was their frontcourt depth,” Coen said. “Not too many teams have multiple bigs like Harvard has. I thought Evan Cummins came in and gave them a great game.
“Their starting frontcourt has four fouls early in the second half, and most programs, that’s ... if Reggie and Scott have four fouls for us with 11 minutes on the clock, we’re in trouble. But they have the luxury with Jonah Travis and Evan Cummins to really continue to play at a high level. I thought it was their frontcourt depth the ultimately made the difference tonight.”
And while both teams could still go on to win titles this season, the difference between them in the early season is clear: One team has been there before and knows how to get there again, while the other is still trying to find its footing.
Jack McCluskey is an editor for ESPN.com and a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter @jack_mccluskey.