BOSTON—With 10.9 seconds left in the game, the ball was right where coach Tommy Amaker wanted it. It was in senior wing Wesley Saunders’s hands, with Harvard down one to local foe Holy Cross. Saunders had done it all for his team on Sunday night, totaling 24 points and grabbing rebounds, recording blocks, and nabbing steals whenever the Crimson needed it.
But, seemingly for the first time all evening, Saunders looked fallible. After bringing the rock down the court via the right sideline, he made his way into the paint, and was forced to throw up a contested jumper. As the game clock wound down, the ball hit the heel of the rim and bounced away from the cylinder.
Ticks later, the whistle blew and the score was official. The No. 25 Harvard men’s basketball team showed weaknesses weeks before it was supposed to be truly challenged, losing, 58-57, to the Crusaders (1-0) Sunday night at TD Garden.
“To have it in [Saunders’s] hands to make a play is all we could’ve asked for,” Amaker said. “[Holy Cross] played a tremendous basketball game with the grittiness that they showed, and I thought towards the end that they deserved the victory.”
The final score was reflective of the back-and-forth nature of the matchup, one in which Harvard (1-1) was seemingly continuously fighting from behind, gaining a slim lead, and then losing its advantage once more. While Saunders was able to bring his team back countless times throughout the night, Holy Cross’s final one-point lead proved insurmountable.
After Harvard fell behind, 8-0, in the opening minutes, then climbed back into contention and took a slim 28-27 lead going into intermission, a Holy Cross run to begin the second half put the Crimson on its heels once more. Two jumpers from junior wing Eric Green, a three-point play and a free-throw line dagger from senior guard Justin Burrell, and a surfeit of Harvard turnovers led the Crusaders on a quick 9-0 run right out of the break.
At the 16:54 mark of the second half, Harvard found itself right back where it started the game, in an eight-point hole, 36-28, with a lot of basketball left to be played.
And then Saunders woke up. After Burrell hit that free-throw line jumper, Saunders put the ball on the floor and penetrated, drawing the foul. Six-point game. Next, Saunders somehow managed to bank in a contested floater in the paint. Five-point game. Minutes later, Saunders received the ball on the left wing and sliced his way into the paint. He elevated after reaching the box, drawing contact in the air, and tossing in the lefty layup. Following the and-one free throw, Harvard was within one.
After Holy Cross began to show signs of life once more, Saunders passed the offensive baton to co-captain Steve Moundou-Missi. With 3:48 to go, Moundou-Missi caught the ball in the corner, dribbled twice, spun baseline, and converted the layup. Next, he ran down the length of the court to block Holy Cross senior Malcolm Miller before sprinting back the other way for a two-handed, emphatic slam that extended the Crimson’s lead to four.
But just as had been true all night, Holy Cross had an answer to Harvard’s run.
Burrell responded to Moundou-Missi’s inside game by taking it to the paint himself, connecting on a short jumper. Harvard up, 55-53. Then, two consecutive Crimson turnovers gave the ball back to the Crusaders, who sunk three straight free throws to take the one-point advantage.
With 1:54 to play, miscommunication between the Harvard backcourt players led a trapped Chambers to throw a long pass to Saunders, right as the latter was running in the opposite direction. Holy Cross capitalized on the mistake, knocking down another pair from the charity stripe to give it a three-point lead with 1:02 remaining.
Chambers, however, made up for the mistake on the next play, finding Mondou-Missi on the back-end of a pick-and-roll. The forward flew in from the right-side second hash mark, dunking the ball and cutting the Crimson’s deficit to one.
But, 30 seconds later, when Saunders started his trip up court with 10 ticks left in the game, there was finally nothing left in the tank for one more comeback. After playing every second of the contest, Saunders could not get his game-winning attempt to fall at the buzzer, and the Holy Cross upset was complete.
For Harvard, the loss came down to what Amaker called an “inability to handle [the Crusaders’] pressure,” with the coach citing the Crimson’s 24 turnovers, a total that more than doubled the Crusaders’s mark of 11, as the key difference in the game.
“It is hard to think that you are going to be able to win, let alone have a chance to win, with that many turnovers,” Amaker said.
To go along with his 24 points, Saunders also tallied 12 rebounds, four steals, three blocks, and three assists. Up until the 3:22 mark of the first half, Saunders had a hand in every basket that Harvard scored, either by sinking the shot himself or handing off the dime that led to the score.
Ultimately, however, Holy Cross’s collective effort overmatched the mammoth performance of Saunders, and the Crimson faced both the first loss of its season and the likely scenario of being bumped from the AP’s Top 25.
“It meant a lot to [Holy Cross] and they played like it meant a lot to them,” Saunders said. “We have to get used to that…. We are going to still have a target on our back every night and we are going to have to go out there and battle our hearts out every night.”
—Staff writer Juliet Spies-Gans can be reached at email@example.com.
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