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In its first game of 2014, the Harvard men’s basketball team started off the new year on a high note with a 73-58 victory Wednesday afternoon over crosstown rival Boston College.
In the Crimson’s eighth straight win, junior guard Wesley Saunders led Harvard with 21 points. Senior forward Kyle Casey collected a team-high 10 rebounds while contributing 11 points of his own to record his second double-double of the season.
Saunders also had the task of guarding the Eagles’ leading scorer in sophomore Olivier Hanlan, whom he held to 13 points in the first matchup between the two teams at Lavietes Pavilion since 1991.
“Against their best player, one of the best players in the country, I thought [Saunders] was outstanding,” Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said. “That’s what I expect of him, and sometimes I have to apologize that I expect so much from him, but I do because that’s how highly I think of him.”
The Crimson jumped out to early leads of 8-1 and 17-6 and never looked back, riding a strong first half showing to down BC for the sixth straight year.
But it didn’t always come easy for Harvard, as the Eagles rode second half momentum to eventually cut the lead to 56-51 with just over seven minutes remaining in the game.
After Saunders netted a jumper and junior forward Jonah Travis made two free throws, sophomore point guard Siyani Chambers sunk a three-pointer to cap a 7-0 run and put the Crimson back up by 12.
“We had a sensational start to the game, and they ended the half very well,” Amaker said. “And from the second half on they were clawing their way back in it. I thought we had to come up with some big time defensive plays to maintain that cushion and even extend it to a certain point. I was very pleased with the effort of our kids.”
The Eagles would get no closer than 10 points after the Harvard response, as Saunders and co-captain Brandyn Curry – in his second game back from injury – added four more points each to secure the win.
In the end, the Crimson buckled down in the closing moments of the contest to withstand the push from BC and add another nonconference victory to its ledger.
“When the game has gotten tight, we’ve got confidence,” Amaker said. “And that’s a big part of this whole process is to really believe, believe in our system, believe in our philosophy, and believe in themselves and their teammates.”
Coming off a game against Fordham when Harvard surrendered a season-high 86 points, the Crimson defense energized the team’s play throughout the game and created fast break opportunities when the Eagles struggled to convert from the field.
“I thought we were locked in pretty well defensively,” Amaker said. “I was really pleased of how hard our guys defended, and that’s become one of the trademarks of our program. It’s nice to see that on display there like it was.”
“We always feed off of our defense,” Travis added. “That’s where we look to draw energy.”
Harvard put forth strong performances on both sides of the court in the first half, going up by as much as 20. Casey highlighted the defensive effort with a one-handed block on a dunk attempt by forward Ryan Anderson, and the Eagles shot only 7-of-26 from the field in the half.
The Crimson offense, on the other hand, was 12-of-23 from the field in the opening period and dominated in the paint, scoring 18 points to BC’s 4. Junior forward Steve Moundou-Missi highlighted the action down low by converting two three-point plays on driving layups.
Especially without the presence of junior center Kenyatta Smith, the team effort in the paint both offensively and defensively was important this game as it has been all season.
“It’s critical for us because we pride ourselves on being able to pressure on the perimeter,” Amaker said. “So we have to make sure we have someone to protect the rim, and our guys have been pretty good with that, being shot blockers and rim protectors.”
The win was the 300th of Amaker’s career, and his 124th with the Crimson.
“I didn’t realize those numbers,” Amaker said. “It just shows that I’ve been at it for a while and have been lucky enough to stay in this business. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed been able to work with college-age kids. It’s pretty neat to be a part of this as long as I have and hopefully make an impact somewhere along the trail.”
—Staff writer David A. Mazza can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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