With nine seconds remaining, Javier Duren sprinted up the court, the ball in his left hand, what was left of Yale’s NCAA tournament chances on his back.
They were chances that once seemed so promising — last Friday when the Bulldogs topped Harvard to take a one-game lead in the Ivy League standings, a week back when they led Dartmouth by 5 points with 35 seconds left, even just a few minutes earlier when they held a one-point lead over Harvard with 1:47 to play.
But Yale coughed up its lead at Dartmouth, allowing Harvard basketball to sneak back atop the Ivy League standings. That forced a tiebreaker with the Crimson for the Ivy’s lone bid to the NCAA tournament. And in that one-game playoff, that lead Yale once held was gone now, too, erased by back-to-back Harvard baskets.
Which left Duren — Yale’s All-Ivy point guard — with one last chance to help push the Bulldogs into the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1962.
Duren moved the ball past half court, closely guarded by Harvard wing Wesley Saunders. Five seconds left. Duren crossed from right to left, beating Saunders. Now he barreled toward the hoop.
Harvard forward Steve Moundou-Missi shuffled over to help, but Duren arched a layup at the hoop that kissed off the backboard and seemed headed for the bottom of the net.
“I thought it was in,” Duren said after the game.
It wasn’t. The ball bounced off the rim, and the next thing he knew, Duren was hunched over behind the basket, watching Harvard celebrate at center court.
“It took me a little while to realize what happened because when I let it go it looked so good,” Duren said. “A situation like that, I think it’s hard to get a better look.”
“We got lucky, to be honest,” Moundou-Missi said after the Crimson’s 53-51 win.
Harvard, winners of five straight Ivy League championships, will now head to its fourth straight NCAA tournament.
“Great basketball game,” Yale coach James Jones said. “Harvard was able to make one more play than we did.”
That play came on Harvard’s final possession, when Saunders drove and dished to Moundou-Missi open at the top of the key. Harvard’s 6-foot-7 forward drilled the mid-range jumper with nine seconds left to give the Crimson its final 53-51 lead.
It was a fitting finish, as it was Saunders and Moundou-Missi who carried the Crimson all of Saturday afternoon before a crowd of 5,256 at Philadelphia’s historic Palestra. Moundou-Missi recorded 11 points and 9 rebounds and — more importantly — held Yale’s Ivy League Player of the Year forward Justin Sears to just 5 points in the second half.
Saunders, meanwhile, posted a game-high 22 points on 8-of-15 shooting and added 4 rebounds and 4 assists.
“Wesley Saunders, in particular, made every big play we needed,” Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said.
After a relatively quiet first half, Saunders went off in the second, scoring nine straight points in a stretch of 1:40 to transform a five-point Crimson deficit into a four-point lead.
That lead grew to as many as nine with 6:19 left, but Yale got to the free throw line five times down the stretch to help close the gap to a single point — 48-47 — with 2:48 to go.
And after Sears came up with a steal, Yale’s Makai Mason knocked down a short jumper to give Yale the 49-48 lead.
Saunders answered, though, with an and-one layup to put the Crimson back on top 51-49 with 1:27 left. On the other end, Harvard nearly came up with a stop, but Duren was fouled on the perimeter with just a few ticks left on the shot clock. Duren went two-for-two from the free throw line (his 11th and 12th points on the night) to even the score at 51-51.
On the following possession, Moundou-Missi missed a jumper with 37 seconds to play, but the Crimson recovered the offensive rebound, setting up the Crimson’s game-winning bucket.
“Wes drove and they collapsed — he made the entire play,” Moundou-Missi said. “I was wide-open. All I had to do was make the shot.”
Moundou-Missi and the rest of the Crimson will learn their opening-round NCAA tournament opponent tomorrow — Selection Sunday.
The Bulldogs, meanwhile, will cross their fingers and hope for a bid to the NIT. But Yale senior Javier Duren isn’t bitter.
“I’m just blessed,” Duren said at the postgame press conference, just a few minutes after he missed the biggest shot of his life. “I had my parents come from St. Louis, Missouri…just to see this game, and it’s probably the most fun game I’ve been a part of.
“I’m a competitor like everyone else, but I can’t help be humble and be proud not only of myself but the guys battling and fighting beside me. We represented Yale well.”