CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- He’s only a freshman, nine games into his college career, but already Harvard coach Tommy Amaker is running out of things to say about Siyani Chambers.
“What can you say about Siyani?” Amaker asked rhetorically. “He’s been the heart and soul for us so far this year. He had to guard those guys and then on this end he’s the savior for us. He made every big play that we needed -- free throws, obviously the game-winning shot.”
Ah, yes, the game-winning shot. It was a big one, with the clock running down and his team down a point after a big shot from visiting Boston University. But Chambers didn’t hesitate, except to ball fake on-rushing defenders and clear his line of sight.
The Golden Valley, Minn., product capped his huge second half with a game-winning jumper with just 4 seconds left on the clock to lift Harvard to a 65-64 win over the Terriers on Tuesday night, forcing his coach to search for new ways to praise him and sending BU home with a familiar bad taste in its mouth.
“I thought that their guards were outstanding -- Watson and Irving were so quick and tough driving the ball to the basket,” Amaker said.
In fact, Amaker took his backcourt to task for the way they played defensively in the first half.
In a battle of preternaturally mature freshmen point guards, Watson took the first round.
The similarities between the two are striking.
Both Watson and Chambers wear No. 1. Both have the distinction of being the shortest player on their respective teams (Watson at 5-foot-10, Chambers at 6-foot). Both have played big minutes right off the bat (26.5 for Watson, 36.8 for Chambers). And both are at or near the top of their respective leagues in assists.
Watson seemed to get wherever he wanted in the first half, driving past Chambers and through converging Crimson defenders to find layups for himself or open shots for teammates. He finished the first half with 8 points, on 4-for-6 shooting, and Irving had 11 to lead all scorers, as the Terriers took a seven-point lead into the locker room.
But after a quiet first half (1-for-4 shooting for 4 points), Chambers took the second round by a knockout.
He scored the Crimson’s first seven points after the break, including a four-point play when he threw up a 3-pointer with the shot clock at one, hit the shot and got fouled by Watson in the process.
His shooting seemed to wake up the Crimson, who went 0-for-8 on 3s in the first half and then shot 7-for-9 in the second half to finish 7-for-17 (41.2 percent).
“It looked like it gave our team a little confidence boost, gave us a little more energy,” Chambers said of his first 3 in the second half. “In terms of the shot, it didn’t do anything for me, but hopefully for the team it sparked a little energy.”
In the end, it wasn’t how Chambers started the half that was most impressive but how he finished it.
After Saunders hit one of two free throws with 47.0 to go in the game to put Harvard up one, all the Crimson needed for the win was a stop. But stops had been hard to come by, especially when the Terriers got the ball into Irving’s hands.
The junior seemed to have the answer whenever Harvard made a run in the second half. When Chambers hit a 3 to put the Crimson up 40-38, Irving came right back with a 3 of his own. Laurent Rivard hit a 3 from the corner to put Harvard up 55-53, but back came Irving with another 3 to push the visitors back in front.
So, of course, when the clock was running down and the Terriers needed a bucket, they turned to Irving.
He came running off a screen and took a pass from Dom Morris at the top of the key, then curled around the key, stopped on a dime and drained a pull-up jumper with just 19 seconds to go.
For once this season, one in which the Terriers already had lost two games at the final horn, it seemed the Terriers were about to pull out a nail-biter.
But Chambers wasn’t fazed. He took the ball up the court after Irving’s jumper, used a ball screen to free himself, calmly assessed his options, ball-faked and stuck a short jumper from just outside the right block with just four ticks to go.
“I came off the ball screen trying to first create for my teammates, but then when the shot opened up I just took the shot,” he said matter-of-factly.
Asked about the decision to let the clock run rather than call a play, Amaker said that’s the way the Crimson like to do it.
“We don’t want the defense to get set,” he said. “Down one possession, we want to play it through unless it’s so low on the clock that we can’t get it up the floor without calling something from the end line for a long pass. We love doing that. That’s our philosophy.
“I thought Siyani drove it and did an excellent job of having composure and shot-faking it. … That’s exactly what happens at the end of games, guys get antsy and chase the ball a little bit. And he showed the composure as a freshman to stop and knock down a 12- or 13-foot shot. We couldn’t ask for anything better. You can’t draw up a play that’s going to give you a better opportunity than we got.”
But the opportunity wouldn’t have meant anything if the Crimson didn’t have a player ready to take advantage of it. Chambers was.
And though he may have seemed cool as a cucumber taking the potential game-winner, Chambers admitted afterward that wasn’t the case.
“It was a pretty nerve-wracking shot,” he said, with a small smile.
A shot that produced a thrilling ending for the home team, and forced a coach to find a new way to praise his most important newcomer.
Jack McCluskey is an editor for ESPN.com and a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter @jack_mccluskey.