Wesley Saunders has been a model of point-producing consistency for Harvard this season: 17 games played, 17 double-digit efforts.
The Ivy League’s leading scorer — a 6-foot-5-inch sophomore from Los Angeles — can hurt opponents multiple ways, with a feathery jumper from 3-point range on one trip possibly followed by a slashing, aggressive drive for a layup on the next.
But it wasn’t Saunders’s scoring that made the biggest impact in Friday night’s 67-64 win over Yale at Lavietes Pavilion, although he was good for a workmanlike 15 points. His ability to distribute the ball, an underrated strength to Saunders’s game, was on full display against the Bulldogs.
“I think it’s something that a lot of people really don’t notice about me,” said Saunders. “I really do look for the pass first. I was trying to be a pass-first kind of guy today. It worked out.”
In a three-minute span of the first half, Saunders showed how smart decisions and a repertoire of passes can kickstart a game-changing run.
Steve Moundou-Missi was the biggest recipient. He caught a no-look flick pass from Saunders on the break, going in for a layup that tied the game at 12. Not long after, Saunders applied a touch of mustard, feeding Moundou-Missi with a behind-the-back dish while on another fast break, putting Harvard ahead, 18-16. His final assist of the first half set Laurent Rivard up for a 3-pointer from deep on the left wing. It gave the Crimson a 38-25 lead, and Saunders his seventh assist, a career high. He finished with 11; combined with the 15 points, it was his first collegiate double-double.
“I think Wesley is the best all-around player in our league,” said Harvard coach Tommy Amaker, who also noted that Saunders nearly had a triple-double when you factored in his six turnovers. “There’s nothing he can’t do. He handles the ball, he rebounds it, he’s big, he’s strong, he scores, he’s our best perimeter defender. We rely on him so much that it’s amazing, and I’m so happy to see how he’s been able to come through for us in so many different categories. He’s a dynamic playmaker. That’s the position we have him.”
It wasn’t all Saunders. Rivard, held to one field goal in Saturday’s 82-77 overtime win over Dartmouth, went 5-for-7 on 3-pointers and paced Harvard with 15 points. Moundou-Missi added 12 points, 7 rebounds, and 2 important blocks late in the game for the Crimson (11-6, 3-0 Ivy).
Harvard led at halftime, 40-27, but never added to it, its lead for much of the second half fluctuating between 8 and 13 before things got tight in the final minute.
Yale wouldn’t go quietly. With Harvard leading, 57-51, Saunders — who else? — split a double team and sent a perfect bounce pass to a cutting Jonah Travis along the baseline, who threw down a two-handed dunk to push the lead back to 8.
The Bulldogs got as close as 3 points three times in the final 20 seconds, cutting it to 63-60 on a layup by Armani Cotton. After four free throws — two by Moundou-Missi, two by Yale’s Matt Townsend — made it 65-62, Harvard’s Christian Webster was called for an offensive foul before Harvard could inbound the ball, giving Yale an unexpected chance to tie the game on a 3-pointer.
With 7.4 seconds left, Townsend took the inbounds pass and missed a layup, with Harvard rebounding and Siyani Chambers getting fouled. He made both free throws, making Austin Morgan’s layup at the buzzer meaningless.
Yale (12-8, 1-2) couldn’t have asked for a better start, with Cotton making his first four shots (two on 3-pointers), scoring the first 10 points for the Bulldogs, and outscoring the Crimson by himself at one point, 10-2. But he picked up his second foul with 15:11 left in the first half and went to the bench; Harvard responded with a 25-10 run.
“To start the game we had a great charge, and then in the middle of the half we played tentatively, and that really hurt us,” said Yale coach James Jones, whose brother, BU men’s coach Joe Jones, was sitting two rows behind the bench. “Our decision-making has got to get better down the stretch if we’re going to beat anybody.”
Greg Kelley, a junior from Newton North who started his second game for Yale, scored 6 points. Cotton finished with 14.Michael Whitmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.