Saunders stars as Harvard tops Princeton

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- Wesley Saunders walked back over halfcourt, in no hurry after the whistle blew.

The Los Angeles native is almost always the personification of California cool, calm and collected, but as he neared the Harvard bench, the junior showed a rare moment of frustration.

He snapped his right arm down, slapping his right hip, and then somewhat grudgingly accepted a handshake from point guard Siyani Chambers.

What had the Crimson star upset? He'd just missed a shot he thought he should've made, a twisting, spinning fallaway jumper off glass (difficulty level: 9 out of 10) that would've given the Crimson a four-point lead over the rival Princeton Tigers late in the first half in what eventually became a 82-76 Harvard victory.

Saunders wasn't the only one upset at the miss.

"Well, I was frustrated that he took the shot," Harvard coach Tommy Amaker cracked after the game, drawing laughs from the gathered reporters. "We were talking about making sure that we got something inside, to the basket to get to the one-and-one. ... He's so good that he can do that, and drive it and then if [the defenders] help he's such a good passer you see what he can do with assists. I was disappointed that he settled for that.

"Because he's capable, that's the blessing and the burden -- that he's capable of making acrobatic shots. ... It was a major league kind of talent kind of play, but I think we needed more of a simpler play at that moment in time. I let him know that."

It was only Saunders' second miss of the night, but then simply being 4-for-6 for 10 points, five rebounds, four assists and three steals in less than a half of play isn't good enough anymore for Saunders.

"That was just a shot that I've been working on a lot, and it felt good coming off my hand so I kinda thought it was going in," he said. "I was just kinda frustrated that it didn't go in."

Then he got the earful from Amaker.

"He just wants me to be aggressive, attacking the basket," Saunders said. "He doesn't like it when I kinda let the defense get away with not having to guard me, really, and kind of just fade away from the basket. He wants me to always be going towards the basket, trying to make a play for my teammates or make a play for myself. That was one of those plays that was kinda iffy."

That play may have been iffy, but if it comes in the kind of package Saunders delivered Friday night, the Crimson will ultimately take it.

Hans Brase, who came into the matchup averaging 11.7 points, seemingly couldn't miss for the Tigers early. The 6-foot-8, 231-pound sophomore scored the Tigers' first 11 points and 17 of their first 21, finishing the half 7-for-9 overall, including 3-for-4 on 3s, for 18 points (a career high).

With Saunders blanketing Princeton leading scorer T.J. Bray in the first half, the Clover, S.C., native almost singlehandedly kept the Tigers close to the Crimson, who were playing without center Kenyatta Smith (out for the season because of a broken bone in his foot), backup big man Jonah Travis (concussion) and reserve guard Agunwa Okolie.

"He torched us early," Amaker said of Brase. "Much better job on him in the second half by us, and I'm sure some things that he missed."

While Brase cooled off after the break, Saunders stayed hot -- scoring the Crimson's first six points and then cutting left across the lane in transition and hitting Laurent Rivard for a wide-open 3 in front of the Harvard bench to push the hosts up by seven.

After that assist, which got the capacity crowd rocking and forced Princeton to call timeout, Saunders peeled off and ran all the way back upcourt, past the Tigers' bench, celebrating the sequence.

Harvard led by as many as 15, and though a Tigers run (aided by some shaking Crimson free-throw shooting) cut it to single digits late, the Crimson held on. Saunders finished with 24 points, nine rebounds, seven assists, three steals and one block.

"Amazing," Rivard said of Saunders' performance. "Obviously if we can get that from him any night, we'll be tough to beat. For him to almost get a triple-double ... I think he made a lot of smart decisions and a lot of smart plays tonight and big shots, too, in the second half."

It has reached the point that the Crimson almost expect to see these kinds of numbers next to Saunders' name after a game.

"We know he's able to do it, so we kinda expect it from him and try to push him to do that every night for us," Rivard said. "He's a really, really big part of our team. If he doesn't do that, we kinda suffer in other areas."

Said Amaker: "That's what he can do. It doesn't surprise us. We know that he's capable of that kind of performance, when you look around and these are his kind of numbers. It was a tremendous effort on his part."

An effort that Harvard will take any day of the week, even if it includes the occasional frustrating circus shot.

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