NEW HAVEN — First, Harvard swept its biggest rival.
Now, it’s out to put a stranglehold on the Ivy League crown.
Harvard defeated Yale, 72-66, at the John J. Lee Amphitheater Saturday night to set up a showdown at Princeton next Friday night. The Crimson (17-7, 9-1) are one game ahead of second-place Princeton in the loss column and a win would put them in the driver’s seat for back-to-back titles.
“[Saturday] was a good game,’’ said Steve Moundou-Missi, who led Harvard with 17 points and added six rebounds. “We’re looking forward to the next games, especially against Princeton and Penn. I wouldn’t say this is a statement but it was a great buildup for us.’’
Harvard has now won four straight against Yale and eight of the last nine.
“It’s been a situation where we’ve been fortunate,’’ Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said. “But they have an outstanding team and you can see why it was so hard to win this game tonight because of the type of kids they have and the job [coach] James Jones has done here.’’
After leading for the majority of the first half and most of the second half, Harvard found itself trailing, 56-51, with 9:22 remaining. Yale had found its shooting stroke from deep and kept the Crimson off-balance on offense.
Harvard, however, stayed poised and responded with a 10-0 run. Moundou-Missi started the rally with a dunk, and freshman guard Siyani Chambers tied the game on a 3-point play. Kenyatta Smith added 2 of his 4 points, and senior Christian Webster buried a 3-pointer from the top of the key to make it 61-56 with 5:17 left.
Webster, the team’s lone senior, buried another 3-pointer to put the Crimson up, 64-59, with 4:23 remaining. Webster scored 10 points, with a trio of 3-pointers in the second half.
“He’s done that for us throughout this year,’’ Amaker said. “He’s made some incredible timely shots for our team when we’ve needed it.’’
Yale made it a one-possession game with 59 seconds left, but Chambers then showed why he’s so touted. He blew by Yale’s Javier Duren and knifed to the bucket before dropping the ball off to Moundou-Missi, who got fouled. He made both free throws to put Harvard up, 71-66.
Duren missed a 3-pointer at the other end and the ball went out of bounds off a Yale player, all but wrapping up the game.
“I thought his play was stellar,’’ Amaker said of Moundou-Missi. “His big rebounds, and playing defense. Some of the things that don’t come in the stat sheet, like how he guards the ball, the ball-screen coverage, how he helps our guards to get over and get through games . . . Steve in particular, what a sensational game by that kid.’’
Harvard led, 34-28, at halftime in large part to the brilliance of Wesley Saunders, the Ivy’s leading scorer. After Yale jumped out to a 9-5 lead, Saunders scored 10 of the Crimson’s next 13 points as Harvard took an 18-13 lead.
Unfortunately for Saunders, that would be the extent of his offensive production. He finished with 14 points and seemed to injure his right wrist in the second half. Earlier in the game, he hit the court hard after a dunk on which he got fouled, and he favored his wrist after being pick-pocketed in the second half.
Amaker said he believed Saunders was fine and that Yale played him tougher the rest of the night.
“I think Saunders was outstanding with making the play that was necessary for our team, not necessarily for himself,’’ Amaker said.
Harvard had to battle for every point, but the Crimson made sure they will be the hunted when they head to Princeton next week.
“It’s always exciting to play in that type of environment, you saw it today,’’ Moundou-Missi said. “That’s what you want as a college player.’’