For a Pennsylvanian, albeit one with steadfast Tiger loyalties, The Palestra has always been college basketball’s showcase arena. May it ever be!!! Yesterday’s Ivy League playoff adds another memorable chapter to The Cathedral’s legendary history.
The announced attendance of 5,266 was far less than a capacity crowd, evidently diminished by bad weather and long-distance travel hurdles. But one must remember that this was easily the largest crowd to see an Ivy League game in several seasons.
The pregame mood was festive, but somewhat apprehensive as everyone understood that they were about to witness another hard fought, hand-to-hand street-fight likely to come down to the final possession, what Yogi Berra famously described as “a real cliff-dweller.” This game delivered, in spades.
Many players distinguished themselves in this one. Yale’s one-two punch of Player of the Year Justin Sears and senior guard Javier Duren scored half of their team’s total, together keeping the Bulldogs in it to the end. For Harvard, senior forward Steve Moundou-Missi accumulated a game-high nine rebounds and hit a 17-foot jump shot to propel the Crimson to the win. Senior forward Jonah Travis once again filled his familiar unsung hero role, grabbing seven caroms. His banging on the offensive glass was crucial in giving Harvard some extra possessions, leading directly to seven points.
But this game was owned by Wesley Saunders, Harvard’s great wing. He always seems to play his best when the stakes are the highest, when the spotlight is the brightest. His stats were, as usual, glittering: 22 points and four assists, both game highs, in 37 minutes. But his impact on the outcome of this game goes far beyond the numbers.
Harvard’s offensive struggles have been well-documented and are never more apparent than against the Bulldogs. In three games this season against Yale, the Crimson have scored 52, 52 and 53. Obviously, success against the Elis would require at the very least extraordinary effort defensively. Yesterday, Amaker got just what he needed from Wesley Saunders, who was assigned the unenviable task of handling the veteran playmaker Duren. In the first half, Duren could manage only two attempts from the field, making one. His four points for the half were his lowest of the season. Saunders got off slowly, too, as he was held to four points in the first half on 2-for-7 shooting from the field.
In the postgame press conference, Harvard coach Tommy Amaker spoke of looking to Saunders to make the “right basketball play” regardless of the circumstances. At the end of the first half, Saunders made the “right play” after Yale freshman guard Makai Mason snagged a rebound and headed toward the Yale basket at the other end to try to add to his team’s four-point lead. Rather than allowing Mason, a three- point shooter of some renown, to get a shot off, Saunders wisely yielded the Crimson’s sixth team foul. Half over.
For five minutes of the second half, Saunders worked hard on defense but remained under wraps at the offensive end. Sensing that it was time to get his team control of the proceedings, he exploded. In about a minute and a half, he canned 10 points. Over the final 15 minutes, he scored 18, far more than any other player on either team scored for the game. Duren did have eight attempts in the second half, most under considerable harassment, and he made but one. He was a perfect 8-for-8 from the free throw line to keep the Bulldogs’ chances alive. He got a pretty good look after Moundou-Missi’s dagger thrust, but Saunders avoided fouling him on the attempt, another crucially wise decision.
Yale coach James Jones and Duren met the media after the game. Sears, the POY, did not. Jones was gracious and classy, effusively praising the Crimson. He was understandably proud of the effort he got from his charges and looked forward to the hoped-for bid from the NIT. Duren was amazing in his appearance before the reporters. His maturity and clear appreciation for the experiences in his career overshadowed by a wide margin the fact that his team had lost this game. He spoke of how happy he was that his parents were able to make the 14-hour journey from St. Louis to be at The Palestra. I sensed at that moment that this was the kind of young man this League is supposed to be about. John Feinstein, whose admiration for mid-major basketball is considerable, was clearly impressed by Duren’s handling of the situation. “Duren is behaving a lot better after this loss than I do when the remote control won’t work,” Feinstein disclosed to his neighbor in the press room.
Amaker was asked if he was concerned when Saunders passed up a contested 12-footer to kick the ball out to the wide-open Moundou-Missi. He stated immediately that the open man is always the “right play” in his team’s view, and he invoked the history of Bill Russell’s Celtics, obviously a hometown example for his club. For his part, when asked the same question, Saunders said it was a matter of trust, and that “I trust Steve in that positon more than I would trust myself.” Put another ‘W’ in Saunders’ column, the only stat he cares about.
Our league can be very proud of our representative in the NCAA tournament, whether they win a game or not. Good Luck, Crimson.