Harvard rallies, holds off Yale

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- The first few minutes of Friday's Yale-Harvard game fit host Harvard like a cheap suit. The visitors from New Haven, meanwhile, came out looking crisp.

But is that really a surprise, considering the Bulldogs were led by a sophomore guard named Armani Cotton?

The Yale sophomore was smooth as silk early Friday night, nailing two quick 3-pointers and converting two layups to help the Bulldogs leap out to a 10-2 lead after just 2:46.

That's when Harvard coach Tommy Amaker called timeout, and let his team know something needed to change -- and fast -- or it would be a long night.

"We have to play everyone honestly, and I thought we were, I don't know, daring people to take the shot," Amaker said. "And the kid Cotton came out right away and I think he buried two 3s right away. … I was just disappointed that we weren't more alert and aware at the very beginning.

"It seemed like we were trying to work our way into it or feel our way through it and [the Bulldogs] jumped right into it. So I thought we needed to stop the momentum."

Steve Moundou-Missi hadn't checked into the game yet, but he saw the same thing that Amaker did.

"The game plan is always to start right but we didn't do that," Moundou-Missi said. "We were all mad we didn't start right. We gotta start right to finish right."

Luckily for the Crimson, things changed after that.

Wesley Saunders skipped a pass across court to Laurent Rivard for a 3. Saunders got fouled on a drive after a Yale turnover and made both freebies. Then Siyani Chambers pushed hard after a Bulldogs miss, gave it to Christian Webster in the corner and got it right back when his man left him to defend the pass.

Wide open, Chambers' shot hit nothing but net and the game was all knotted up.

From there, the Crimson were off and running.

"Yale's a good team," Saunders said. "They come out hungry to beat us every time. I think we just needed to match their intensity.

Nick Victor had a dunk attempt clang off the rim, and Saunders fed the ball ahead to Steve Moundou-Missi for a layup. Later Victor dove to pick off a pass and missed, leaving Saunders to find Moundou-Missi again for an easy layup. A couple of possessions later, Saunders crossed over a defender, drew help and found Rivard open for a 3 in the right corner.

The Crimson made good use of the 3 on the night, shooting 61.5 percent. Yale shot just 40 percent from deep.

And while Harvard rebounded from the slow start to lead by as many as 15 points in the first half, the lead was far from safe in the second 20 minutes.

"We weren't very disciplined, I thought, in the second half defensively," Amaker said. "And you give a lot of credit to Yale. … They started their run right away."

The Bulldogs opened the second half with a 10-5 run to cut into the Crimson's cushion, and applied pressure the rest of the way.

With a little less than 14 minutes to go, Chambers picked up his fourth foul and headed to the bench. He didn't return until there was 3:29 left, and the lead was just six.

It was a quiet night statistically for Chambers (11 points, 2 rebounds, 2 assists), but Rivard and Saunders picked up the slack, their 15 points each accounting for just less than half of the Crimson's final tally. Saunders' 11 assists were more than half the team total of 17.

But when the lead perhaps felt the most tenuous, it was neither Rivard nor Saunders who stepped to the line with a chance to give the Crimson a little breathing room.

It was Moundou-Missi, who got fouled after the Crimson inbounded the ball into the Bulldogs' press.

He toed the stripe with 18 seconds to go, his team up just 3. So, Steve, what was going through your head?

"We got pretty close in the game and I felt like I had to make my free throws in order for us to keep the lead," he said. "I know there's pressure, but I missed my first four free throws and I just tried to make those last two."

The ref passed him the ball for the first, and a hush fell over what had been a loud Lavietes. He took one dribble, set himself and swished the freebie. Again the ref passed him the ball, again a hush. He dribbled, set himself and let it fly. The ball hit the rim, spun around the cylinder, kicked up onto the backboard, high on the square, and then fell softly back in.

Moundou-Missi felt a wave of relief wash over him, along with the delighted cheers of the capacity crowd.

That second free throw, Moundou-Missi's 12th point of the night, proved to be the difference in Harvard's 67-64 win.

"I thought it was going out and I was really thrilled when it went in," he said with a smile.

And on a night when two of his team's stalwarts (Rivard and Chambers) were plagued by foul trouble, it was the reserve big man who turned out to be the perfect fit for a pressure-packed spot.

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