Playing the biggest game of the season to date without their best player was far from ideal, but for the Harvard Crimson it was also nothing new.
After all, coach Tommy Amaker said after his team -- which will be without leading scorer Wesley Saunders “indefinitely” due to a sore left knee -- dropped a hard-fought game 61-56 at UConn on Wednesday night, they’ve been through this before.
They’ve played the first 15 games of 2013-14 without big man Kenyatta Smith and lost senior co-captain Brandyn Curry for nine of the first 11 games.
“We were gonna make it work with who we have. We were confident that we had an opportunity. Think about what we had to do last year,” Amaker said, referring to missing Kyle Casey and Curry for all of last season after they were implicated in an academic cheating scandal. “So we’re not fazed by missing a player. I think obviously he’s a terrific player, [there’s] a lot of things he does for our team, we’d love to have him. Given the circumstances, I felt our guys were locked in. I didn’t sense any letdown or being defeated or dejected based on that.
“I thought we still believed and by the way that we played I think it showed that we still believed that we were gonna win or have a chance to win.”
The Crimson did have a puncher’s chance, with Siyani Chambers (game-high 21 points, on 7-for-11 shooting including 5-for-7 on 3s) and Laurent Rivard (13 points, including seven in an 18-second span in the final half-minute) throwing haymaker after haymaker late to get Harvard within three with nine seconds remaining.
But Harvard couldn’t get a shot off on its final possession, Curry’s hurried pass back to Chambers intercepted by DeAndre Daniels.
“At the end there, we created some confusion and Brandyn just unfortunately slipped,” Chambers said. “My job was to go out there and make a play for myself or for others. And we had a chance at it, so I’m not disappointed that I didn’t get a shot.”
The loss snapped Harvard’s nine-game win streak, its longest since 2011-12, and dropped its nonconference record to 13-2 with one non-Ivy League game left at Florida Atlantic. Even with the loss, the Crimson are off to their best start in the Amaker era (one game better than the 12-2 start in 2011-12).
While the loss of Saunders hurt, even with senior co-captain Curry replacing him in the starting lineup, Chambers said he felt the Crimson didn’t miss a beat.
“Coach’s motto is next person up,” the sophomore point guard said. “So when someone’s down, we were just gonna do it as a team. Someone was gonna step up and we play their role that they have. We were just gonna come in and do what we had to do as individuals and then also as a team.”
The Crimson struggled mightily against the length of the Huskies, especially in the second half when they had six shots blocked. Curry played 38 minutes in the game, matching his combined total from the previous three games, and scuffled with his shot, going just 2-for-12 and nearly matching his six assists with four turnovers.
UConn coach Kevin Ollie said the game plan didn’t change against Harvard without Saunders.
“You got Curry coming in, that’s a seasoned veteran, too, who’s been around the block,” he said. “I think they’ve got about six starters. We didn’t want to drop our guards. Wesley Saunders is a great player but Tommy does a great job of getting those guys prepared and we wasn’t gonna say, ‘Aw, he’s not playing, we’ve gotta take our foot off the gas pedal.’
“We can’t do that right now, we’ve got a sense of urgency. We’ve gotta get wins. This was a terrific win for us, because I think they’re gonna be a great team and they’re gonna do some great things in March.”
Saunders told The Boston Globe’s Michael Vega after the game that his knee was feeling better and that while he would meet with Harvard team doctors Thursday, he hoped it would improve enough for him to return in time for Saturday’s Ivy opener against Dartmouth.
But in the meantime, Amaker is planning as if Saunders will be out a while.
“Wesley’s our best player, you know the numbers and the stats that he brings,” Amaker said of the junior averaging 15.7 PPG and 3.8 APG. “There’s a lot that he brings to the table for our team, not having him was a big blow for us. As Siyani said and as I said, we’ll go with who we have, we’ve understood how that works.
“Opportunities present themselves in very strange, weird ways. We talked about that in our pregame, who knows, this could be the emergence of something different or someone different for our ball club. And that’s how you have to approach it.”
Jack McCluskey is an editor for ESPN.com and a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter @jack_mccluskey.