Throughout the 2014-15 Ivy League season, Harvard and Yale were evenly matched. The co-champions had identical 11-3 league records, split the season series with close games, and ended the regular season a mere four slots apart in KenPom’s national rankings. So it was fitting that Saturday’s playoff was tied heading into the final possession.
In front of a raucous crowd of 5,256 at The Palestra, split almost perfectly between navy and crimson, Siyani Chambers ran the game clock down to the teens before handing off to Wesley Saunders. The senior, who had scored a game-high 22 points to that point, made his way into the middle of the lane. After a half-spin drew three defenders, Saunders turned and saw a wide-open Steve Moundou-Missi at the top of the key. Saunders chose to pass, and with seven seconds remaining, Moundou-Missi hit nothing but net.
“Wes made that entire play. I was wide open. All I had to do was make the shot at the end,” Moundou-Missi said. “I figured, I’ve been making shots so many times in practice, it was a matter of just being confident.”
Javier Duren, who is no stranger to clutch shots, pushed up the court in Yale’s last gasp as coach James Jones decided not to call a timeout. Duren got into the lane for a last-second floater, but it missed its mark. Justin Sears, waiting underneath the basket, was not able to tip in the rebound. Harvard students rushed onto the court after a 53-51 victory, celebrating their fourth straight trip to the NCAA tournament.
“I’ve always said about Wesley — as I said about Jeremy Lin — it’s not about the points he scores, it’s always about the points he’s responsible for,” Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said. “He put us on his back and carried us down the stretch.”
For most of the second half, however, it actually was about the points Saunders scored. A unanimous All-Ivy selection and last year’s Player of the Year, he was held to four points in the first half, but he dropped 18 on nine shooting possessions in the second to lead Harvard back from a halftime deficit.
Saunders’ on-court personality is famously stoic, but with an NCAA tournament bid on the line and the Crimson’s biggest rivals across the court, he was more expressive than ever on Saturday. After singlehandedly orchestrating a 9-0 run midway through the second half, capped by two straight three-pointer from the right wing, Saunders literally galloped around the court with glee. In the final two minutes, he hopped up and down pleading for a continuation call — which was ultimately granted, turning a one-point deficit into a two-point Harvard lead.
But on the last possession, Saunders eschewed a contested shot in the lane, instead passing to Moundou-Missi — a fitting move for a player with the Ivy League’s second-highest assist rate.
“I trust Steve to knock down that shot more than I trust myself. Lately, he’s been carrying us down that last stretch defensively and offensively,” Saunders said. “I knew they were going to collapse on me when I got into the paint. Steve played off of my penetration and knocked down the shot.”
Moundou-Missi, like Saunders, will play in his fourth NCAA tournament next week. The native of Cameroon was pivotal in every Harvard-Yale game this year, scoring 21 points with 10 rebounds in last week’s loss and posting 11 and nine on Saturday. Moundou-Missi earned second-team All-Ivy honors behind an improved jumper, but his biggest impact came on the other end, where he was named the league’s top defender.
Marked chiefly by Moundou-Missi, Player of the Year Justin Sears was held below his season average in all three Harvard-Yale meetings. Sears took only one shot after halftime, watching as guards Duren, Makai Mason and Armani Cotton took over the Bulldogs’ offense. “They do a really good job at the basket. They have a lot of different bodies,” Jones said. “I thought it was a combination of good defense, and us trying to move the ball and get the other guys touches on offense.”
Saturday’s game was the second straight Ivy League playoff to come down to the last possession, following Princeton’s buzzer-beating win over Harvard in 2011. The low score was due not to inefficient offense, but a slow pace: 51 possessions, the least for either Harvard or Yale this season.
The Elis trailed by as many as nine points in the second half, but they made a run in typical Yale fashion — offensive rebounds and free throws. Duren, who was frustrated by some no-calls early in the second half, was reimbursed down the stretch with soft whistles while driving to the hoop. A second-chance jumper by Makai Mason capped a 12-2 run to give Yale the lead with 1:47 to play, and two free throws by Duren tied the score again in the final minute.
But for the second straight Saturday, the Bulldogs were beaten in the final seconds, when a win would have sent them to the NCAA tournament for the first time in two generations.
Harvard, meanwhile, is well-known in the dance, having pulled first-round upsets as a 14-seed in 2013 and a 12-seed in 2014. They seem likely to fall right in between those seed lines this year, andthey may have to travel far away from campus again. But with a senior-laden roster and a giant-killing reputation, expect the Crimson to get plenty of attention this week.
“The senior class, we talked about what we want our legacy to be,” Saunders said. “We wanted to cement our legacy tonight and come out with a victory.”