Wesley Saunders helps Harvard recover to capture crucial Ivy win

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- Wesley Saunders is smooth.

At times, he's so smooth it seems like he’s coasting, taking his foot off the gas and letting momentum carry him around the court.

But then, seemingly inevitably, the senior makes a play or a series of plays that show his motor is still revving at an extremely high level.

Harvard trailed Princeton by double digits for most of the first half on Saturday night. The Crimson allowed the Tigers to shoot an impossibly high percentage from the floor and missed their fair share of easy looks.

"We struggled mightily in the first half, and they played very well and were sharp," Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said. "We just talked about hanging in there. We thought that if we could just show the composure in being able to relax a little bit in the second half that the shots that we didn’t make [in the first half] we would make in the second half."

Trailing by seven early in the second, Saunders put it in gear. The Harvard star found himself as the last line of defense against a 2-on-1. He stepped up to force the pass, then dropped quickly to swipe the ball away and off the Princeton attacker's leg out of bounds.

But the official didn't see it that way, giving the ball back to Princeton. Saunders was visibly upset with the call, pointing at his leg to indicate where the ball hit and then turning away with a rueful smile when his argument fell on deaf ears.

Rarely ruffled for long, Saunders wasn't this time, either. The next time Princeton went into the lane, Saunders swiped at the ball again and this time caught it himself, streaked up the court and swooped through two defenders to lay it in.

That bucket -- which Saunders followed up with a 3-pointer shortly after -- began an 11-4 run for Harvard to get things back to even and eventually propel the Crimson to a 63-55 win.

"To win on Saturday night [in the Ivy League], it can be a dogfight," Amaker said. "You have to scratch and claw."

Saunders and the Crimson did just that, overcoming a 14-point deficit by holding Princeton to just 18 second-half points and getting big buckets from Saunders (game-high 23 points), Siyani Chambers (12 points) and Steve Moundou-Missi (12 points) down the stretch.

Asked about the big comeback, Chambers first praised the Tigers for playing a "really, really good game."

"[The comeback] was a will to win," the junior co-captain said. "We had to dig down and just compete every possession and get stops and defensive rebounds. I think in the second half we were really able to do that."

Amaker -- whose position as head coach was officially endowed on Saturday, thanks to a gift from Staples co-founder and Harvard alum Thomas G. Stemberg -- has as many alliterative sayings as a motivational speaker. After the game he shared one he likes to use with his players.

"We talk about being disciplined, determined and deserving," Amaker said. "And I thought we were all three."

The Crimson got a boost from a sellout crowd which, after braving the winter weather, was into the game the whole way. The fans cheered each Harvard defensive stop and offensive bucket. They also cheered every time the public address announcer mentioned during the out-of-town scores that Yale -- the Ivy co-leader entering the night at 8-1 -- was losing against Columbia.

Everyone in the building knew the stakes that each Ancient Eight game carries with it and could sense the opportunity, hence the effort.

"A theme for our team coming into the year that coach talked about was no regrets," Saunders said. "And we didn’t want this to be a game where we felt like we didn’t give 100 percent effort and we look back feeling like we could've done more or we should've done more to come out with the victory."

The only regrets after this one will come from the Tigers, who sit in third place in the Ivy and had the upper hand for so much of the game before faltering late. With Yale losing to Columbia, Harvard now owns first place outright with four games to go in the 14-game Ivy slate.

"I just thought our kids gave great effort," Amaker said. "And we had to. There was no other way of surviving this game if we didn’t play with an enormous amount of effort."

And while many players contributed to the win, no one may have given as much effort as Saunders, even if it didn’t always look that way.

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