STORRS, Conn. — Shabazz Napier and his University of Connecticut teammates sensed something was amiss when they didn’t spot Harvard’s leading scorer, Wesley Saunders, during warm-ups for Wednesday night’s nonconference game at Gampel Pavilion.
“We found out when we started doing our warm-ups and we saw that he was not dressed for the game,’’ said Napier, a 6-foot-1-inch senior guard from Roxbury, Mass. “But we played against Houston and they didn’t have three starters [in a 75-71 victory over the Huskies Dec. 31], so we didn’t think it was going to be an easy task. We knew they were going to come out and play as tough as they possibly can. And they definitely did that.’’
Even with their best player sitting out because of a stiff left knee that swelled up during the morning shootaround, the Crimson twice pulled within 3 points in the final 16 seconds. But Harvard’s comeback fell short, 61-56, when Brandyn Curry, who started in place of Saunders, committed a turnover with two seconds left on a possession that could have enabled Harvard to tie it. The loss snapped Harvard’s nine-game winning streak and halted UConn’s two-game skid.
“Not having him was a big blow for us,’’ said Harvard coach Tommy Amaker, whose team forged a 31-26 halftime lead. “But like I said to the team, we have to go with who we have.’’
Sophomore guard Siyani Chambers did his best to fill the void by leading Harvard (13-2), which was held to 35.7 percent shooting (20 of 56), with a game-high 21 points on 7-for-11 shooting (including 5 of 7 from the 3-point arc). Senior guard Laurent Rivard chipped in 13 points, the last 7 in the final 34 seconds on a foul-inducing trey and a layup that drew contact from DeAndre Daniels.
“That’s a hard team to guard because they make you play — most of the time — for 35 seconds,’’ said UConn coach Kevin Ollie, whose team (12-3) got 18 points from Napier and 14 from Ryan Boatright to rebound from back-to-back American Athletic Conference losses at Houston and Southern Methodist.
“It’s exactly what we needed,’’ Ollie said. “This team is going to test your discipline. We wanted to be competitive, but we also wanted to stay in our principles. If you’re going to play a team that challenges you in those areas, this is the team. They’ve got some big-time basketball players over there.’’
But Harvard was missing its best big-time player in Saunders (15.7 points per game), who wasn’t certain how or when he injured the knee in last Saturday’s 69-54 nonconference victory at Rice, only that “I just remembered it swelling up’’ after the game.
Amaker said Saunders’s injury was not an aggravation of an existing condition. “This is new,’’ Amaker said, which prompted him to hold Saunders out of practice Monday and Tuesday.
“I did some stuff during the shootaround today and it tightened right back up afterward,’’ Saunders said. “It wasn’t really stable during the shootaround so I didn’t want to risk further injury to it by doing anything too heavy on it before I got a diagnosis.’’
Saunders said he expects to meet with team doctors Thursday.
“We’ll see where we go from there, but it’s definitely improving,’’ Saunders said after Wednesday night’s game. “The swelling is going down and I’m getting my range of motion back. I don’t think there’s any structural damage, like a tear or a sprain or anything like that. Hopefully, I can be back for Dartmouth.’’
It seemed difficult for the Crimson, who host the Big Green Saturday in the Ivy League opener for both teams, to walk off the court at Gampel and not wonder what might have been had Saunders been available.
“It’s always tough sitting out a game, but they fought to the end — the very end — and they never really lost confidence,’’ Saunders said of his teammates. “I mean, we do this every day in practice with situations where players are out, so everybody knows they have to step up.
“They did a great job without me, so I don’t even know how much of a difference it would’ve made, to be honest.’’