With seven minutes left in Harvard’s game against Boston College on Wednesday — their first meeting at Lavietes Pavilion in a generation — the Crimson was getting into some trouble. After leading as much as 33-13 in the first half, Harvard’s advantage had dwindled to five points, and after Brandyn Curry missed a layup short, the Eagles had a chance to pull even closer. Olivier Hanlan got the rebound and went coast-to-coast, stepping past Laurent Rivard and floating a layup that could bring the Eagles within one possession.
But Steve Moundou-Missi came from behind the play, skied well above the rim and met the ball at its highest point, swatting it off the backboard and away from the hoop.
Within seconds, Wesley Saunders was past halfcourt with the ball, barreling into the lane for a layup in transition. Back on defense, the Crimson shut down BC’s first two actions — a Joe Rahon drive and a Hanlan pick-and-roll — forcing the Eagles to reset again. As the shot clock ticked down to 2, Hanlan stepped behind the arc for a desperate three-pointer.
But Saunders, anticipating the jumper, leapt right with Hanlan and got his finger on the ball as soon as it was launched. Hanlan’s shot never reached the rim.
Back went Harvard the other way, and after a long possession, Jonah Travis was fouled on a finger-roll attempt that barely slipped off the rim. He made both free throws, pressuring the Eagles to answer on their next possession. Ryan Anderson maneuvered past Moundou-Missi in the post, clearing the way for a short floater from the middle of the lane.
But Kyle Casey stepped into the lane, met the ball almost exactly where Moundou-Missi had a minute earlier, and blocked it safely into the corner.
By the time Siyani Chambers made a wide-three on the other end, Harvard’s lead was back to double digits, and the outcome was all but sealed. The Crimson held on to win 73-58, kicking off 2014 with a sixth straight victory against their ACC neighbors.
“We get excited for this matchup. There’s always a little extra in there,” Saunders said. “We’ve played pretty much every conference — big teams, little teams — so I don’t think we get caught up too much in the ACC thing. I think it’s more the cross-town rivalry.”
It was nearly certain that Harvard would score plenty of points — it entered Wednesday having scored at least a point per possession in all but one game this season, while Boston College had allowed at least that many to all but one D-I opponent. The interesting battle came at the other end: How well would BC’s top-50 offense fare against the Crimson’s top-50 defense?
For the first 20 minutes, Harvard won decisively, especially in the paint. The Eagles entered the game shooting 56 percent from two-point range, 10th-best in the nation, but they made just three of 14 two-pointers in Wednesday’s first period. At halftime, Harvard had 18 points in the paint to BC’s four.
Boston College found its footing in the second half, attacking the paint more purposefully and making its first five two-pointers after intermission. But in Wednesday’s most critical moments, Harvard blocked three shots on three consecutive possessions, turning defense into offense in its game-icing 7-0 run. Those blocks weren’t out of character for the Crimson — Moundou-Missi, Casey, Saunders and Evan Cummins each have at least a dozen rejections this season.
“We pride ourselves on being able to pressure out on the perimeter, so if you’re going to have pressure on the perimeter, you need somebody to protect the rim. Our guys have been pretty darned good at that,” said Harvard coach Tommy Amaker, who noted that the Crimson has been without top shotblocker Kenyatta Smith. “Even if they don’t block the shot, they can make it challenging for the offensive player, and that’s the goal.”
Curry and Agunwa Okolie had stints guarding the Eagles’ top offensive threat, Olivier Hanlan, but for most of the game, that duty fell to Saunders. Especially in the first half, the junior rarely allowed Hanlan driving lanes, and most of Hanlan’s good attempts came from offensive rebounds or other broken plays. For the game, Hanlan scored 13 points — but he shot just 3-for-12 with three turnovers.
“I thought he was outstanding, and that’s what I expect out of him,” Amaker said of Saunders, who also scored a game-high 21 points on 8-for-10 shooting. “He’s our best perimeter defender, and we rely on him a great deal, for a lot of things.”
In the end, the Eagles scored 58 points on 61 possessions, their third-worst mark of the season. Early in the year, BC’s record was disappointing, but their underlying performance wasn’t awful; their defeats to Providence, Connecticut and Toledo each came by one possession. But not only have the Eagles lost their last six D-I games, all of those came by at least eight points — including routs against Purdue, USC, VCU and now Harvard. With only ACC games remaining, it won’t get any easier from here.
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