When Kentucky walled off the paint with its array of towering big men and held UCLA to an embarrassing seven first-half points Saturday afternoon, it seemed like the Wildcats had delivered an early favorite for the best defensive half of the season.
Less than 24 hours later, sixth-ranked Virginia provided competition
The Cavaliers' 76-27 victory over Harvard on Sunday afternoon was every bit as dominant as Kentucky's rout of the Bruins the previous day. Last year's ACC champions squeezed the life out of the Crimson early, opening leads of 30-4 after 15 minutes, 39-8 at halftime and 45-9 a few minutes into the second half.
The lopsided score showed what happens when a pack-line defense at the top of its game runs across a mid-major that lacks the elite athleticism needed to attack off the dribble and the outside shooters to bomb from behind the arc. Virginia stayed compact defensively and Harvard could do nothing to force the Cavs to extend, hitting just 1 of 20 shots in the first half and 8 of 50 for the game.
Harvard's one first-half field goal tied a Division I record set by Savannah State against Kansas State in Jan. 2008 and matched by Northern Illinois against Eastern Michigan in Jan. 2013. The only saving grace for the Crimson is both those teams managed only four first-half points and remarkably shot an even lower percentage from the field.
During one stretch between baskets by Zena Edosomwan and Steve Mondou-Missi, Harvard went an incredible 19 minutes, 53 seconds without a field goal. Starting guards Siyani Chambers, Wesley Saunders and Agunwa Okolie shot a combined 0-for-24.
Such a suffocating defensive performance would have been noteworthy from Virginia even if it came against a bad opponent, but the fact that the Cavs did it at Harvard's expense is even more impressive. This is a Crimson team that entered 7-1, that has won a game in the past two NCAA tournaments and that is a heavy favorite to win the Ivy League outright for the third consecutive season.
Of course, one could offer similar praise to Kentucky for shutting down a UCLA team that entered with an 8-3 record and boasts a few capable scorers. Below is a graphic comparing the two brilliant defensive first halves turned in by Virginia and Kentucky.
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