Wesley Saunders made the right play.
Harvard gained possession with 33 seconds to go and the game tied at 51-51, an NCAA tournament berth on the line. Junior guard Siyani Chambers successfully handed the ball off to Saunders, who then went to work. He drove in the lane with 10 seconds left, and when the defense converged, he kicked the ball out to senior forward Steve Moundou-Missi, the Ivy League defensive player of the year. Moundou-Missi had went on an offensive run earlier in the contest, scoring six straight points, but the two points that he’ll remember most for the rest of his career are the ones that he notched after catching Saunders’ pass and draining a jumper from the top of the key.
Saunders had the type of game that an Ivy League Player of the Year has when it’s for all the marbles. Watching him in the second half, where he scored 18 of his 22 points, it was impossible not to realize that it was he, and not Yale junior forward Justin Sears, who was the best player in the conference.
Though done in dramatic fashion this year, this is old hat for Saunders, Moundou-Missi, and the rest of the senior class that has won four straight Ivy League NCAA tournament bids.
All of that aside, the best play of the night wasn’t made by Saunders, or by Moundou-Missi. It didn’t even occur during the contest.
Yale senior guard Javier Duren had all the pressure on him after Moundou-Missi nailed that jumper. Despite coach James Jones claiming postgame that it’s his philosophy to not call a timeout in that situation, Duren subsequently told reporters he wasn’t aware of that. So as he crossed midcourt as the seconds ticked down, he hesitated before ultimately driving into the lane.
The look he had wasn’t a bad one.
“I thought it was in,” Duren said. “The ball took a crazy bounce. A situation like that, it’s hard to get a better look.”
But it didn’t drop. Yale had an opportunity to tip the ball in just moments before time expired. That didn’t drop either.
While Sears could be found, understandably, sitting with his hands in his head post-game, frustrated at what could have been, his counterpart, Duren, arrived at the podium with a smile on his face.
“We came in prepared,” Duren said. “As much as I want to be upset, honestly, it’s just awesome to be a part of this experience.”
There are a good number of players like Saunders in the NCAA. Those players will all be on display over the next few weekends, where their plays on the court will wow fans. And there is certainly a reason to be infatuated with those players, who rise to the moment when it matters the most.
But there aren’t enough people like Duren in sports currently. He has an understanding of the history and the stakes, but he also understands that at the end of the day, the journey will be so much more valuable to him than the result.
It was so good to see a player defy a sports culture in which victory is not just everything but the only thing.
Players like Saunders are wonderful to watch for their skill on the court. And he will be the one people who saw highlights later that night or even watched the game in person will remember.
But people need to learn from the manner in which Duren carried himself after losing, if only to remember that there can be strength in failure. Realizing that just depends on your perspective.