Three Thoughts: Harvard 84, Houston 63

Behind double-doubles from a pair of seniors, Harvard cruised to an 84-63 victory over Houston on Tuesday night, leading for all but the first 12 seconds. Three thoughts (plus an extra morsel) from Lavietes Pavilion:

Corbin Miller and Steve Moundou-Missi celebrate Miller's buzzer-beating three-pointer at the end of the first half.
Corbin Miller and Steve Moundou-Missi celebrate Miller’s buzzer-beating three-pointer at the end of the first half.

1. Steve Moundou-Missi might be the most underrated player in the Ivy League. Yes, he was named to the All-Ivy second team last year and has won three straight conference titles, but Moundou-Missi is even better than his reputation. The forward was Harvard’s top scorer and rebounder in conference play last season while making more than 60 percent of his shots. Now a senior, Moundou-Missi has added touch to his offensive game (swishing a pair of mid-range jumpers on Tuesday) while retaining his astounding explosiveness (slamming a monstrous put-back dunk off of a missed three-pointer early in the second half).

“When I think of Steve’s growth throughout his time here, I think of confidence — I look at how much more confident he is in his all-around game,” Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said. “He’s stepping out and making the 16-foot jump shot, he’s been really athletic around the rim … he’s being a tremendous help-side defender as well. He’s playing like a senior.”

Moundou-Missi finished with 14 points on 6-for-8 shooting and added a career-high 14 rebounds. His backcourt teammates may get more notoriety, but Moundou-Missi deserves to be squarely in the Player of the Year conversation.

2. Wesley Saunders has found a new level. Saunders was a unanimous first-team All-Ivy selection as a sophomore and the Player of the Year as a junior — and somehow, he’s been significantly better this season. While playing more than 90% of Harvard’s minutes, Saunders has increased his usage, improved his offensive efficiency, cut his turnovers and increased his assists. Perhaps most importantly, he’s had a bigger impact on the glass; the 6-5 guard grabbed 10 rebounds against an aggressive Houston team on Tuesday, adding 24 points for his third double-double in four games. Though it’s super early in the season, Saunders entered the day ranked third in Ken Pomeroy’s national Player of the Year standings.

3. Harvard dominated the paint. Against an American Athletic Conference team with height throughout the roster, Harvard had a considerable advantage inside. Though Houston crashed the offensive glass relentlessly, as usual, the Crimson had a better offensive rebound rate (43% to 34%) and held impact transfer Devonta Pollard to four points. On the other end,  the hosts put four Cougars in foul trouble (with help from a tight whistle) while scoring 69% of their points in the paint or at the foul line.

“It was definitely a physical game,” Moundou-Missi said. “Their entire team crashes the boards, and they’re really hard to defend in that aspect of the game, but I think as a team, we did a decent job.”

Bonus note: Siyani Chambers escaped a two-game slump with 12 points and five assists, including the biggest play of the game. After Houston cut a double-digit deficit to six points, the Crimson held for the last shot of the first half, which Saunders missed off the rim. But the loose rebound bounced to Chambers, who looked at the rim as the final seconds ticked down — and then turned and dished to Corbin Miller, who had just enough time to release a three-pointer. Miller’s shot splashed at the horn, and the Crimson were never again seriously threatened. “It was an incredibly savvy play by Siyani, which is what we’ve seen him do quite often,” Amaker said.

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