For the Harvard men’s basketball team when it faced Yale on March 7th, the term “charity stripe” must have seemed a mischaracterization. Time after time, a Crimson player would step to the free-throw line, take several dribbles, and put up a shot.
Clank. Rim. “Long!”
The poor shooting seemed contagious, and every Harvard player who attempted a free throw on the night shot worse than his season average.
While Ivy Player of the Year Wesley Saunders went 1-of-8 from the stripe, and last year’s Ancient Eight Rookie of the Year Siyani Chambers shot 55.5 percent from the line, junior forward Steve Moundou-Missi connected at an 80 percent clip.
With the Yale crowd jeering in the packed Payne Whitney Gymnasium, Moundou-Missi walked to the line, received the ball from the referee, and paused, holding the rock on his left lip. He reached the ball around his back, grabbed it with his right hand, and dribbled a few times.
“I’ve got shooter!” “Box out!” Swish.
Early in the first half and late in the second period, Moundou-Missi converted from the line. Perhaps it was the wraparound-the-back part of his free throw routine that differentiated his time at the stripe from that of his teammates. But on an evening when no one else could knock down the only “free” shot on the court, the big man made it his duty to do so.
An hour later, after the final buzzer rang, when the rest of the Crimson celebrated its Ivy League title and NCAA Tournament berth with fist pumps and chest bumps, Moundou-Missi turned towards the Harvard fan section and began to applaud. Instead of celebrating his own victory, the forward was thanking the Crimson fans for their contribution.
Another twenty minutes passed, and Moundou-Missi was sitting at the postgame press conference. Not once in the duration of the interview did he say the word “I.” Instead, he said the words “group,” “together,” and “we” multiple times.
While Moundou-Missi is quick to credit his teammates for his own success, his 2013-2014 season statistics indicate that the forward has grown into his own during the course of the year. In his third Cambridge campaign, he leads the team in both rebounds and blocks per game (with 5.7 and 1.3, respectively), and averages over 25 percent more points per contest this season than last.
Despite the return of fellow big man senior Kyle Casey, Moundou-Missi’s minutes spiked over the course of the year, largely due to the season-ending injury of junior Kenyatta Smith. Moundou-Missi’s time on the hardwood jumped from 20.6 minutes per game in his sophomore year to 24.8 in his junior year, good for a 125-minute increase overall.
With the injury to Smith, an amplified amount of pressure was put on Moundou-Missi down low. And, according to his teammates and coaches, he delivered.
In the squad’s first league game of the season, Moundou-Missi tallied 16 points on 57 percent shooting from the floor, going a perfect 8-of-8 from the free-throw line—only once in the entire 2012-2013 season did Moundou-Missi score 16 points or more. He got to the line more than seven times in a single contest only once his sophomore campaign, and when he did he shot only 5-of-11, a far cry from this year’s charity stripe-conversion rate.
This season, Moundou-Missi has put up at least 16 points seven times, and scored over 20 points in four of those games. In the last three contests of the season, the junior put up 16, 16, and 21 points, respectively, earning Ivy League Player of the Week honors along the way.
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.