With the Crimson’s frontcourt game radically altered due to the loss of Smith, it’s been largely up to Moundou-Missi and Casey to provide their team with the necessary bulk down low, on the offensive and defensive ends.
On Feb. 14th against a feisty Columbia team, the Crimson found itself down two with the game clock approaching zero. Saunders held the ball near the left wing, sliced into the lane, and missed the shot. Luckily for Harvard, Moundou-Missi lay waiting near the rim, hands up, ready for the put-back attempt.
With that bucket, Harvard forced overtime. And after a few more back-and-forths, the Crimson preserved its first-place standing in the league, prevailing over Columbia, 88-84.
“We’ve come to expect sensational efforts on the offensive end by some of our guys, but to see Steve play the way he played with a great deal of confidence—stepping up, making shots and getting on the glass—was the difference for us,” said Harvard coach Tommy Amaker after the game.
The following weekend, the Crimson traveled to Princeton to play the biggest game of its season to that point. The squad hadn’t won at Jadwin Gymnasium for over two decades, and not once in program history had it swept the season series against both Penn and Princeton. With Yale breathing down Harvard’s neck for the conference’s lead spot, the Crimson was forced to do what it hadn’t done in any of its players lifetimes: win at Princeton.
It was a rocky game for Harvard, and the Tigers took a quick lead in the opening minutes. However, some late game heroics from the Crimson’s backcourt—Chambers and co-captain Brandyn Curry—along with a double-double from Moundou-Missi brought Harvard back into the game and eventually earned it the win, 59-47.
It was the defensive effort though of Moundou-Missi that drew Amaker’s attention.
“With the way that Steve played for us, if you look at his line…he was sensational and he had to guard their bigs [Hans Brase and Will Barrett] out on the floor a lot,” Amaker said. “A tremendous effort out of Steve. For him to be able to play those kinds of minutes and not be in foul trouble, I’m very pleased with that.”
While Brase and Barrett both averaged double-digit scoring for the season, they were held on that night to a combined three points. The frontcourt duo went 1-of-10 from the floor, while Moundou-Missi controlled the paint with a game-high four blocks. The Tigers, meanwhile, tallied four blocks as a team.
And so it continued for the big man, whose statistics went up in almost every measurable category this year: field goal percentage, free-throw percentage, points, rebounds, assists, and blocks. When it counted the most, in a title-clinching game against Yale, Moundou-Missi came through once more, stepping to the line, curling the ball around his back, and knocking down shot after shot.
Before the team had taken the court this season, Smith had described Moundou-Missi as a “workhorse.” At that point, no one knew that the Cameroonian native would have to fill in for Smith in the middle. But, after the numbers that Moundou-Missi has put up in the last four months—including leading the Crimson in conference “win shares”—it seems that Smith’s designation of Moundou-Missi is truer than ever.
“I think the big change in my game is my confidence level,” Moundou-Missi explained in November. “I feel like this summer I practiced a lot and got confident taking some shots I didn’t take last year.”
Four months, 30 games, and over 300 points later, this surge in “confidence” and the newly found faith in his jumper paid off. It was Moundou-Missi who led the Crimson in field goal and free-throw percentage in that all-important game against the Bulldogs, and, when Harvard takes the floor in the NCAA Tournament this week, it will be Moundou-Missi starting down low for his team, anchoring it in the middle.
—Staff writer Juliet Spies-Gans can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.