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Monday, December 9, 2013
Harvard's Saunders isn't quiet for long

By Jack McCluskey

For more than 12 minutes of game action Saturday, the Terriers did something that almost no one’s been able to do this season: They held Wesley Saunders scoreless.

After hitting a layup with 12:10 remaining in the second half of Harvard’s game at Boston University, Saunders sat at 18 points on 7-for-18 shooting from the floor and 4-for-4 shooting at the line. The layup put the Crimson up by two in a back-and-forth game in Case Gymnasium, Saunders answering another Terriers run. As he’s done all season, the junior guard was shouldering a heavy load.

But when the buzzer sounded 12 minutes later to end the second half with the score tied at 66, Saunders’ line read: 18 points, 7-for-22 shooting, 4-for-4 on FTs.

Crimson coach Tommy Amaker was asked after the game if he ever wavered during Saunders’ lull in the second half.

“I never wavered at all with Wes,” he said. “There are gonna be stretches where people are gonna do different [things] -- they were doubling him, and trying to get it out of his hands every time he put it on the floor.”

And though he was held without a point while the Terriers rallied from 10 down to force overtime, Saunders wasn’t going to be denied in the extra five minutes. Saunders hit Harvard’s first shot in the OT -- a smooth step-back jumper in the lane -- and added five free throws to help seal the 79-68 win, finishing with 25 points (tying a season high).

Just for good measure, Saunders added five rebounds, five assists, four steals and one block against only three turnovers.

On Monday, Saunders was named Ivy League Player of the Week for the second straight week. He averaged 21.0 PPG, 4.0 RPG and 3.5 APG as the Crimson beat Northeastern and BU to push their win streak to five.

After the game Saturday, BU coach Joe Jones -- an Ivy veteran as the former head coach at Columbia -- was full of praise for the 6-foot-5, 215-pounder.

“That kid, he’s a kid that you’re not stopping him,” Jones said. “You just hope that if he takes 24 shots, he makes six or seven or eight, in this case. But you’re not stopping him, there’s no way. I’ve watched enough tape of this dude. He makes so many tough shots. His body control is phenomenal. And for a guy who doesn’t shoot 3s, he’s just a hard guy to stop. The other thing is, they have four other guys on the floor who are really good. That helps him, too.

“You go into a game [saying] ‘You’ve gotta stop Saunders, you’ve gotta stop Saunders.’ Well, the other guys around him are really good.”

Amaker has made no secret of his opinion of Saunders.

“He’s our best all-around player, he’s one of the best all-around players in the country,” the coach said after the 72-64 win over Northeastern at Matthews Arena on Wednesday. “I’ve said that. There’s nothing he can’t do. And he’s done that for us throughout his time here at Harvard, to make a play. And sometimes it’s for himself, sometimes it’s for others.”

The highlight of the game against the Huskies might have been Saunders’ driving, spinning, left-handed layup through contact. Saunders ended up down on the court as the ball settled through the twine, the whistle blowing to give him a shot at an and-1.

It was a singularly athletic play, one coming at a key time to wipe out a potential Huskies run.

Saunders has gotten to the point -- his seventh Ivy Player of the Week honor ties him for sixth most all-time with three others, including former Harvard star Jeremy Lin -- that his coach can kid him about what happened next.

“I’m disappointed he didn’t finish it with the free throw, the and-1 part of it,” Amaker joked of the play, drawing a smile from Saunders sitting next to him. “It really kind of settled us down and certainly we want the ball in his hands to make plays for himself and his teammates.”

After the game, Jones was asked if he’s seen a player like Saunders before in the Ivy League. The coach paused to consider the question before answering.

“He’s kind of a unique guy,” Jones said. “I’m sure there were probably some guys that were similar, but I don’t know if anyone was as good. I just think his body control is what makes him so good.

"He plays at a great pace, he never rushes. You know he’s going right, you still can’t stop him. You know he’s gonna drive the ball into the paint and shoot over you, he still hangs in the air. He takes smaller guys and backs them in, he takes bigger guys and gets around them. He’s tough.”

Jack McCluskey is an editor for ESPN.com and a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter @jack_mccluskey.