If home is where the heart is, the Harvard Crimson men’s basketball team is more than accustomed now to being heartbreakers in every home arena in the Ivy League. Its latest road conquest has put itself in prime position at an Ivy League four-peat.
Wesley Saunders, last season’s Ivy League Player of the Year, scored 12 of his 16 points in the second half as Harvard came away with a 52-50 defensive slugfest of a victory over the previously undefeated Yale Bulldogs at a raucous John J. Lee Amphitheater. The win pulled the Crimson into a tie atop the Ivy League standings with the Bulldogs at 5-1 in league play.
The echoing cacophony of noise at the Amphitheater made for an intimidating challenge for the Crimson (15-5, 5-1), and their opponent, riding its first 5-0 start to league play since 1957, only made the task of keeping up with the league leaders all the more daunting.
But Harvard’s top-ranked defense made life difficult for Yale in the first half, as they held the Bulldogs to just 11 points on 3-for-22 shooting in the first 20 minutes. Though Yale only made one field goal in the final 12 minutes of the half, they only found themselves down by five at the intermission, as Harvard only converted eight of its 26 attempts at goal (30.8%).
The first three minutes of the second half was what had to be considered a shooting exhibition, especially given how cold the teams were before the break. Yale converted its first four shots and five of its first six field goal attempts, with Jack Montague’s second three-pointer during that span cutting Harvard’s lead to 25-24 with 15:41 remaining.
That turned out to be as close as Yale (16-7, 5-1) would get to the Crimson, as Harvard never relinquished the lead, relying on a stifling interior defense and their core players to close the game out. Along with Saunders’ scoring, point guard Siyani Chambers scored all eight of his points in the second half. His three-pointer with the shot clock running down gave the Crimson at 42-36 lead with 4:42 left. On the next defensive possession, senior Steve Moundou-Missi came up with a block on a layup attempt by Matt Townsend, spurring a fast break that was finished by a Saunders layup to give Harvard its largest lead of the game, 44-36. The lead grew to 10 before the Bulldogs hit two three-pointers in the final minute to cut the lead to two with 7.1 seconds remaining. Saunders sank two free throws with six seconds left to seal the game.
This game also was built up as a matchup between last season’s Ivy League Player of the Year in Saunders against Yale forward Justin Sears, the current frontrunner for this season’s individual top honor, but Sears was not able to match Saunders’ impact. Using their depth of size in the frontcourt, including Moundou-Missi, the Crimson held Sears to nine points, 12 points below his league-leading scoring average in Ivy League play coming into the game. Sears was forced to take a number of perimeter jumpers as he finished just 2-for-7 from the field to go along with seven rebounds.
While both teams are tied atop the Ivy League standings, Harvard would appear to have the edge going forward, with six of its final eight contests coming at home. The rematch, which may very well decide the Ivy League champion, will be at Lavietes Pavilion in Cambridge on Friday, March 6.
[Cover photo (Wesley Saunders) courtesy of Robert F. Worley/The Harvard Crimson]