Steve Moundou-Missi (above) hit the game-winning shot as Harvard downed Yale, 53-51. (Photo: bigstory.ap.org)
Tom Reifsnyder (@tom_reifsnyder)
Coming into Saturday's Ivy League playoff against co-champion Yale, Harvard's seniors had been to the NCAA Tournament in every single year of their careers.
With mere seconds to play and their tournament hopes hanging in the balance, seniors Steve Moundou-Missi and Wesley Saunders showed a packed Palestra crowd that they weren't quite ready for their run to be over.
Saunders, who already had a game-high 22 points at the time, dribbled the ball back and forth at the top of the key with only the game clock to worry about. As the seconds ticked away, Saunders prepared to make his move.
However, it wasn't the move that everyone had expected.
Saunders crossed his man over and pulled off a quick spin in the lane, then got cut off and--instead of forcing a shot--dished the ball to his wide-open fellow senior at the top of the key.
Moundou-Missi, the reigning Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year, is a terrific player in his own right, but why would Saunders pass up the shot that all big-time players covet so deeply?
"Because I was passing to Steve," Saunders said with a wide grin. "I trust Steve and I trust everybody else on our team. I mean, I trust Steve to knock down that shot more than I would trust myself maybe."
Saunders' trust was well placed.
The 6-foot-7 Yaounde, Cameroon native knocked down the long mid-range jumper with not a second's hesitation. Harvard was dancing for a fourth consecutive time.
He would finish with 11 points and a game-high nine rebounds.
For Moundou-Missi, whose shooting range rarely extends very far past the foul line, this was a big shot; especially after he had missed a shot from a similar distance just a possession ago.
But apparently, the missed shot barely crossed his mind.
"After missing that shot, to be honest, I completely forgot about it the second after," Moundou-Missi said. "Matter of fact, I thought it was going in the entire time.
"But then when Wes made the play and they collapsed, he made the entire play. I was wide open; all I had to do was make the shot."
Saunders and Moundou-Missi's connection worked like magic, but they left a little more time on the clock than they would have liked.
Without calling a timeout, Yale inbounded the ball down by just two and rushed up the court for one final attempt.
Fittingly, Saunders and Moundou-Missi were once again on center stage as Yale looked to steal a victory in the final seconds. Yale's inbounds pass found senior guard Javier Duren, who pushed the ball in hopes of beating his man, Saunders, to the basket, which he did.
But Saunders wasn't alone.
"I was on the ball and [Duren] beat me to the basket, but I knew that I couldn’t foul so I didn’t want to do anything silly," Saunders said. "I also knew that Steve, the defensive player of the year, was back there so I knew that he would have my back like he’s had all season.
"And so he stepped up and he altered the shot and then at that moment it was just about corralling the offensive rebound, which we weren’t able to do, but luckily it rolled off so we just got to count our blessings with that one."
While Moundou-Missi's attempt to draw a charge caused Duren to shoot an off-balance shot, it also allowed Moundou-Missi's assignment, Justin Sears, an opportunity to tip the miss home.
Sears, the reigning Ivy League Player of the Year, had been somewhat contained by Moundou-Missi as he scored just five points in the second half, but he was poised to make up for lost time when the ball bounced off the rim and came his way with only a few seconds to play.
"My fear was more on the offensive rebound," Moundou-Missi said. "They got 10 offensive rebounds in the entire game and they pounded the glass so hard throughout the game that after Duren missed that shot and Justin Sears put it back but it didn’t go in...I, I mean, I was really scared.
"We got lucky, to be honest, that the ball didn’t go in."
Sometimes it's better to be lucky than good. But tonight, Harvard was both.
Saunders, Moundou-Missi and the rest of Harvard's senior class can now say that they've been to the NCAA Tournament in every single year that they've worn a Harvard uniform.
"As a senior class we talked about it, about what we want our legacy to be," Saunders said. "And so we wanted to cement our legacy tonight and come out with a victory; and we were able to that."
Although winning the Ivy League and making the NCAA Tournament field has become more of an expectation than a hope for Harvard over the past decade, head coach Tommy Amaker still places a great amount of value in the accomplishment; especially for the seniors.
"We vowed to have no regrets; and I thought these kids throughout the whole season played pretty much in that manner," Amaker said. "And obviously this senior class and what they’ve accomplished throughout their time is amazing.
"It’s amazing in this great, special conference of terrific teams, terrific players and outstanding coaches through the years."