PHILADELPHIA — There wasn’t much doubt about who the best player on the court was Saturday during Harvard’s 74-55 victory over Cornell in the first semifinal of the Ivy League basketball tournament played, for the second straight season, at the Palestra.
It was Seth Towns, a slender, 6-foot-7 sophomore forward, who finished the game with 24 points and 12 rebounds, even though he had to endure a little bit of a tongue-lashing at halftime from his coach, Tommy Amaker.
“I feel bad,” Amaker said, glancing at the stat sheet after the game. “I’m all over him and he ends up with 24 and 12. There are just times when he gets passive out there and I jump him a little because he’s so talented.”
Harvard will no doubt need all of Towns’s talents in the championship game Sunday when it faces Pennsylvania, an 80-57 winner over Yale in the second semifinal.
What makes Towns, who was voted the Ivy League player of the year, different than most talented players? Basketball isn’t the most important thing in his life. Not even close. He sees it as a means to an end. That’s why he’s at Harvard and not Ohio State, Michigan or any of the other big-time programs that recruited him.
“When Coach Amaker came to visit me he said something to me that no other coach said, that no other coach could say,” Towns said. “He said if you graduate from Harvard, it will help provide you a platform in the world that will go well beyond basketball. There are things I want to do in the future. I don’t want to sound corny but my life goal is to make an impact on the world; try to leave it a better place. There’s a lot going on right now that’s not good. There’s a lot of inequality and lack of equal opportunity. I’d like to try to help.”
Towns grew up in north Columbus, Ohio and went to Northland High School. When he was in high school, four Northland students were shot and killed in separate incidents. One was a close friend, Abou Diawara, who was shot while sitting on his porch in a drive-by shooting incident.
That was at least part of the reason Towns was open to Amaker’s message when Harvard began recruiting him. The other reason was his mother, Melissa Smitherman, who took both her sons, Seth and younger brother Gabe, to visit Harvard when they were very young.
“She wanted to tell them that this is what they should aspire to someday,” Amaker said. “Seth didn’t forget.”
Amaker’s biggest problem in recruiting Towns was getting to Columbus to visit. “It was the winter when it wouldn’t stop snowing in Boston,” he said. “Four straight Mondays — four — I was supposed to fly out there and couldn’t get out of Boston. Once I did get there I wanted to be sure he knew how much I wanted him at Harvard.”
And so, at the end of the meeting that day, Amaker stepped out of character, abandoning his never let-’em-see-you-sweat persona. “Seth,” he said. “With all due respect, If you don’t come to Harvard, you’re f------ crazy.”
When Towns called to tell Amaker he was coming to Harvard he said, “Coach, I’m not crazy.”
Amaker, who played high school basketball for Red Jenkins at W.T. Woodson in Northern Virginia before going to Duke to be part of Mike Krzyzewski’s first Final Four team, has engineered a remarkable renaissance at Harvard. He arrived in 2007 to a program that had played postseason basketball once, in the 1946 NCAA tournament, and had never won an Ivy League title. From 2010 to 2015, Amaker won or shared five consecutive Ivy League titles and led two upsets in the first full round of the NCAA tournament.
That success has helped attract better players, Towns included.
“There’s no question I was influenced by the success Harvard had,” he said. “I knew I could get a Harvard education and be part of a good team. That was very attractive to me. Plus, Coach Amaker. He comes across cool, but he’s intense. In practice, he’ll get after it, especially when he’s making a point about defense.”
After finishing in second place a year ago, Harvard tied for first with resurgent Penn. This despite the fact that point guard Bryce Aiken went down with a knee injury for the season at the start of league play.
On Saturday, Aiken’s replacement, Christian Juzang, made the biggest shot of the game. Cornell had led for most of the first half but trailed 34-32 after two free throws with 1.8 seconds left before the break.
But Harvard, like most teams, has a last-second play. If run perfectly, Robert Baker throws a high-arcing inbounds pass to center Chris Lewis, who flips it to either Juzang or Corey Johnson trailing the play.
Baker’s pass was somehow caught by Lewis as he and Cornell’s Jack Gordon went up for it. The two collided and went to the floor, but Lewis was able to flip the ball to Juzang, who released a shot from the ‘Y’ in the Ivy League logo, about 40 feet from the basket. It swished for a 37-32 lead.
“Actually Corey [Johnson] beat me in H-O-R-S-E shooting that shot yesterday in practice,” Juzang said. “It felt good leaving my hand, looked good.”
Cornell briefly got to within two early in the second half, but never got even again. Harvard got the lead into double digits for good at 59-48 when a Towns lob pass to Lewis went over his head — and into the basket.
“God was on my side,” Towns said, laughing.
The Crimson will have their hands full Sunday playing Penn on the Quakers’ home court, but Amaker has no issue with the locale
“This is where this tournament should be played,” he said before Saturday’s game. “Every coach should be honored to play in this building. Sometimes you have to think outside yourself. I’d love to play Penn in here tomorrow to have the chance to play for the title but also to try and show people that it doesn’t matter where you play. If you’re the better team, you win.”
Regardless of the outcome Sunday, Towns knows Harvard has a bright future: there are no impact seniors on this team and Aiken, the point guard, will be back next year.
This summer Towns plans to volunteer at an orphanage. Beyond that though, he likes to quote Ralph Waldo Emerson, Harvard class of 1821: “Do not go where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path . . . and leave a trail.”
There’s little doubt that, someday in the not-too-distant future, Towns will do just that.
For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.
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