With 13:31 left in the first half, senior wing Wesley Saunders barreled into the paint, head down, and drilled a short floater. Moments later, Saunders was calling for the rock once more. Grand Canyon had missed a jumper, and junior co-captain Siyani Chambers was pushing the ball up the court.
Chambers found his backcourt-mate waiting on the right wing. Saunders caught the ball, set his feet, and put up the trey. The shot was good, pushing the Crimson’s lead to seven.
And then, seemingly for the first time in weeks, Saunders smiled. The Antelopes called a timeout, and he chest bumped Chambers at mid-court. For the first time since its Dec. 8 game against Boston University, the Harvard men’s basketball team was rolling.
After losing consecutive contests to Virginia and Arizona State, the Crimson (8-3) outpaced Grand Canyon (8-8) from start to finish on Tuesday evening, earning the 72-59 victory at Grand Canyon University Arena in its final game of 2014.
“I thought our kids played with great energy and great purpose…[against] a terrific basketball team and in a great environment,” Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said. “It was really important for us to get off to a good start, and we did that. I thought we gained some confidence seeing the ball go through the basket, which is something we struggled with in the last two games.”
True to form, Chambers and Saunders led Harvard on the evening, with 16 and 15 points, respectively. And it was the tempo set by the Crimson backcourt that enabled Harvard to pull away from the home team early in the second period.
After Chambers found Saunders near the left elbow for a short jumper to beat the halftime buzzer, Saunders began post-break play in similar fashion. With the ball near the top of the key and the shot clock winding down, the senior stopped on a dime and drilled the jump shot, extending the Crimson’s lead to 12.
On the following Harvard possession, Chambers found his co-captain, forward Steve Moundou-Missi, on the left block. The big man connected. 38-24, Harvard.
Next, after an Antelopes' miss, Moundou-Missi sent an outlet pass to Chambers, who went coast-to-coast, using only one dribble to get from the right elbow to the left block, laying the ball in with his off-hand.
And so it went. A short corner jump shot from sophomore Corbin Miller minutes later gave the Crimson its then-biggest lead of the contest at 20, and, despite a bevy of Antelope layups in the game’s waning moments, Grand Canyon never truly threatened again.
“It was nice to get some rhythm on the offensive end, which allowed us to have some defensive energy against a ball club that, quite honestly, is an attacking, dangerous team,” Amaker explained. “We were able to get out of the box early, and [we] managed the game very well in a tough environment to do so against a team that brings a lot of fire power…. I thought our bench gave us a great lift, and our guys brought it home for us.”
Atypically, Harvard did most of its early damage from beyond the arc. In the first period, it shot a blistering 71.4 percent from downtown, while holding the home squad to only 37.5 percent from the field in the same span of time.
According to Saunders, the team’s previous two contests—its first pair of back-to-back losses in over 21 months—served as motivation to separate itself from its opponent as early as possible.
“We knew it was basically a must-win game [given the two prior losses], so we came out with a lot of energy and were able to sustain it,” Saunders said. “We knew we had to regroup…[and while] I think a lot of times we get off to slow starts and kind of build up to things, I think this game we hit first and were able to sustain throughout.”
The Antelopes were paced by point guard DeWayne Russell—who tallied 15 points, four rebounds, and three assists—and forward Daniel Alexander, who nearly doubled his season average with 15 points on the night.
For the Crimson, which ended its year just as it started it—with a double-digit win over a nonconference opponent—Tuesday’s victory was significant in that it allowed the team to get back to the style of play and the level of energy it wants to be performing at before league competition begins in mid-January.
“We’re getting there,” Amaker said. “We’re still searching for somewhat of a consistent identity, a consistent effort, but we’re moving closer. I think tonight was a big step towards that.”
Moundou-Missi echoed his coach’s sentiments, citing Amaker’s pre-game speech as key to the team’s play.
“Before [tip-off], Coach talked about coming into the game with a purpose and that no matter what, we’re going to fight until the end,” Moundou-Missi said. “So that’s what we did today. It was a focusing point to get our confidence back. The last couple games we lost that a bit, so it was important to just get into rhythm and get that confidence back.”
—Staff writer Juliet Spies-Gans can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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