Harvard head coach Tommy Amaker’s homecoming to Washington, D.C., went about as well as it could Saturday, Jan. 16.

Powered by a 11-0 second-half run, Harvard pulled away late to defeat Howard, 69-61, and ensured that Amaker’s return to the District would be a memorable one for him and 25 of his family members who counted among the 2,700 who packed Howard’s cozy Burr Gymnasium.

“Being back at home in the Washington, D.C. area is very meaningful,” Amaker said following the win. “Having all of my folks here was meaningful for me and for the other staff members as well.”

In the absence of NCAA leading scorer James “J-Byrd” Daniel III, and with Howard’s second-leading scorer James Miller sitting out with a broken hand, Howard head coach Kevin Nickelberry turned to Dalique Mingo and Damon Collins to replace the production. Both players finished the game with 14 points, which led the Bison in scoring.

After a sluggish start, Howard traded leads with Harvard late in the opening half, and nabbed its first lead of the game after a Mingo layup with 3:05 remaining in the first half.

The Bison led 27-26 at halftime, but the lack of depth proved to be too much to overcome. Howard’s Keon Hill hit a three-pointer with 8:05 remaining in the game to tie it at 47 and send the Howard fans into a collective frenzy. But Harvard, which has played in four consecutive NCAA tournaments, distanced itself from Howard behind a flurry of baskets to retain the lead for good.

“We knew that we would come out and play tough; we felt that we could win the game,” Nickelberry said. “You can’t replace the leading scorer in the country. You can’t replace a kid who is in the top three in the nation in steals. You can’t replace those shots in the stretch…their veterans took over.”

Nickelberry, who is in his sixth season as Howard’s leading man after a head coaching stop at Hampton, took over an embattled Howard program in 2010. The season quickly turned the program around with Howard’s 16 wins last year, the school’s most since the 2001-02 season.

He and Amaker worked with their respective athletic departments to arrange the historic meeting, and Nickelberry hopes that to replicate Amaker’s by attracting top-tier athletes who are also just as gifted in the classroom.

“We’re trying to get academic kids to come to our school, get a degree and get a chance to be in the spotlight,” Nickelberry, a Washington D.C. native, said. “When school is over, your life will still have a great ending.”

Amaker grew up in Falls Church, Virginia, where he starred at Fairfax’s W.T. Woodson High School, before heading to Duke University on a basketball scholarship. Prior to Harvard, Amaker held head coaching positions at Seton Hall and Michigan.

His mother, Alma Amaker, graduated from Dunbar High School in Northwest and Virginia State University. She was one of the 25 family members who rented a van for Saturday’s game. Although a moment of panic ensued after their vehicle broke down on the way to Howard’s campus, they arrived in time to fill the seats located just behind Harvard’s bench.

“My first thought was, ‘how am I going to get enough tickets for this big family?’” she said with a laugh. “This is just great. Tommy’s a great guy and he was so excited to see all of his cousins and family here today. His high school coach is also here, so it’s very special for him.”

While there is no rematch slated in the future, both coaches remain hopeful that the contest is just the first of many. The series also gives both schools an opportunity for exposure, which they hope will have a positive impact on recruiting.

“Harvard and Howard are two of the iconic names in higher education and we’re proud to be a part of it…” Amaker said. “We’re certainly hopeful that we can continue this series.”

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