PROVIDENCE — Needing a win Friday night to match the longest win streak over a conference opponent in program history, Harvard got a typical game from Brown: The Crimson were forced to work for it.
This one actually required extra effort, and a career night from Wesley Saunders. The senior guard and reigning Ivy League player of the year scored a career-high 33 points and forced overtime by rebounding his own miss and banking in a short shot as the second-half buzzer sounded. Saunders then scored 5 points in overtime, including a key 3-pointer, leading Harvard over Brown, 76-74, at the Pizzitola Sports Center.
It was the 11th straight win by Harvard over Brown, a streak that dates to the 2009-10 season. The Crimson (14-5, 4-1) also had 11 straight wins over Dartmouth, a streak that ended on Jan. 24 with a 9-point loss at Lavietes Pavilion.
What had been a 10-point Harvard lead disappeared early in the second half, with Brown (9-13, 0-5) taking advantage of the Crimson’s sloppy ballhandling to go on a 13-0 run that sandwiched halftime.
Harvard committed turnovers on its first six trips of the second half, and didn’t score a point until a free throw by Saunders with 14:07 left. The Crimson’s first second-half field goal came on a floating jumper by Saunders 30 seconds later.
By then the Bears had jumped in front, and for the entire second half — or at least from the time Brown drew within 36-32 on a layup by Tavon Blackmon in the first minute — neither team led by more than 4 points. Blackmon scored a career-high 25 points.
“The difference for us was Wesley Saunders. He played inspired basketball to get the ball to the basket, getting a double-double, and obviously getting that big layup and offensive rebound basket that he was able to put the game in overtime for us,” said Harvard coach Tommy Amaker. “We’ve had these kind of games against Brown.”
Blackmon missed the first of two free throws with 8.8 seconds left in regulation, giving Saunders one final chance. He took a pass from Siyani Chambers, drove to the basket, and missed his first shot. But the rebound came directly to him and he converted at the horn, sending the game to overtime. It was one of 20 offensive rebounds for the Crimson; Jonah Travis (11 points) had five.
The Crimson never trailed in overtime, and took the lead for good on a pair of free throws by Saunders to make it 68-66. After Harvard forced a Brown turnover, Saunders buried a 3-pointer from the right wing with 2:19 left, giving Harvard a 5-point lead.
Brown closed within 76-74 on a rebound basket by Steven Spieth (12 points) with 2.9 seconds left, and after Chambers missed two free throws, Spieth’s 70-footer came just after the buzzer and wouldn’t have counted. It missed, anyway.
One way to jump out to a comfortable lead? Take care of the ball. The Crimson didn’t turn it over for the first 16½ minutes — unlike their start to the second half — taking a first-half lead as large as 13 points, after a Chambers layup put Harvard up, 32-19, with 4:09 remaining.
Harvard’s first turnover came on the possession after Chambers’s layup (bad pass by Agunwa Okolie), followed by a second the next trip down (bad pass from Chambers). It helped the Bears end the half on an 11-4 run, with Cedric Kuakumensah scoring 7 straight in the closing stretch, part of his team-high 10 points before the break.
Those were the only two first-half turnovers for Harvard, though, which came in averaging 14.3 per game in its limited conference schedule so far (they finished the game with 14). The Crimson held Brown to 40 percent shooting in the first half, and were led by Saunders, who scored 14 before the break. In addition to his 33 points — his previous career high was 27 — he added 10 rebounds. Agunwa Okolie scored 11 points and grabbed eight rebounds.
Harvard completes a run of four straight Ivy road games on Saturday night with a visit to league leader Yale, which improved to 5-0 in the conference with an 81-66 win over Dartmouth.