Here's the guy Roy Williams & North Carolina are lucky to have survived
Wesley Saunders couldn’t have picked a better time or a bigger stage to dial up one of the best games of his career.
Unfortunately for the Harvard senior swingman, his 26 points Thursday night against No. 4 seed North Carolina were two too few in a 67-65 loss to the Tar Heels in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
A Southern California kid now at one of the most prestigious schools in the country, Saunders has been irreplaceable for the Crimson: Harvard made the NCAA tournament in each of Saunders’ four years — an impressive feat in its own right, considering the school’s only other NCAA appearance came in 1946 — and Saunders made the All-Ivy first team three times, including a league Player of the Year nod last season.
Without Saunders’ 22 points in the Crimson’s one-game playoff win over Yale last week, Harvard likely wouldn’t even have been in Florida for Thursday’s tilt with one of college basketball’s most storied programs, and so it surprised no one that Saunders was up to the task against a bigger, stronger, more physical Tar Heels team — just as he was in games against New Mexico and Cincinnati and Michigan State in tournaments past.
“Well, it was obvious that Wesley is an outstanding basketball player,” Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said just moments after Saunders’ potential game-winning 3 clanked off the rim with three seconds to play, Saunders’ only missed 3 on the night.
“He's a terrific all-around player. He's been playing great coming into this game and certainly played exceptionally well tonight. We need him to do so much for our team. As I've said before, it's not always the points he scores, it's the points he's responsible for ... obviously we didn't sub for him. He played 40 minutes, and he was responsible for a heck of a lot of production for our team.”
The barrage started early, as Saunders scored 15 of Harvard’s first 18 points, almost single-handedly keeping the game within reach in a first half in which the Crimson trailed by as many as 14. And in the second half it was again Saunders who multiple times helped stanch the flow of Tar Heels points with key buckets, free throws and even a pair of slick assists as Harvard scrapped to keep the game from turning into a UNC runaway.
After Harvard whittled a North Carolina second-half lead from 16 down to four, Saunders stepped up with a jumper to pull within two with 2:43 to play, and though it was Siyani Chambers who gave the Crimson their first and only lead of the game on a clutch four-point play with 1:14 to go, there was never any doubt that Saunders would be the one to win or lose the game on the night’s final possession, with his team down by two.
“I looked for Corbin (Miller), but they obviously knew he was a great shooter, so they were kind of cheating towards him,” Saunders said. “I realized the clock was running down so I had to get up a shot. It felt kind of good, and it just went off the backboard, and it was just demoralizing. But we came out and battled and we fought against a great team, and that's all you can really ask for.”
Not surprisingly, Amaker didn’t seem to show any reservations about Saunders hoisting a 3 with the game on the line, even though Saunders had the option to try to force overtime.
“We wanted it in Wesley's hands,” Amaker said. “We were trying to see if we could steal something (with) Corbin, but Wesley is our playmaker, and certainly it wasn't there to get the three (from Miller), and we wanted obviously for Wesley to make a decision. The way he's been playing (and the way) he played tonight was outstanding. I thought he was as good as anybody that played in our game here this evening. So if he was going to get a three, get a drive, get a two, we were going to live with his decision.”
That’s not necessarily much consolation to Saunders, who dropped to the floor as the clock ran out on his final college game, but once he’d had time to compose himself, Saunders reflected on what this and the other 119 Harvard games he played in over the past four years would mean to him.
“I wouldn't rather go out there and battle with any other group of guys,” Saunders said. “I mean, our coaching staff, I love them. Everybody is like family. We've been through good times, bad times, and I mean, it's just been a blessing that I've been able to be a part of this. This obviously isn't the finish that I wanted to have, but we knew it was going to end eventually, so it's just been great. It's been a great four years, and I'm just so thankful that I've been able to be a part of this program.”
Now the reins effectively will be handed to Chambers, a co-captain as a junior and the man who will be tasked with living up to the standard Saunders set during his Harvard career when the Crimson take the floor again next fall.
“He's been front and center for us since the day he walked on campus,” Amaker said of Chambers, who had 13 points in the loss. “I anticipate that he's going to continue to show his leadership and all the things that he knows how to do in terms of being a winner. That's what he knows, that's what he's done his whole life, that's what he's been able to contribute to our program, and I anticipate that he's going to do that and then some for his senior year with the returning guys and incoming guys.”
As for the Tar Heels, who will play No. 5 Arkansas in the next round, they were just happy — and, frankly, a little bit fortunate — to avoid the upset, which is truly an accomplishment when a player like Saunders is doing everything he can and more to send your team home early.
“We thought we had a strategy for (Saunders) but it didn't work,” Heels coach Roy Williams said after the game. “He was a load, and we knew that. Last year he was player of the year in the league. We tried to focus on him with our team. J.P. (Tokoto) really did a pretty doggone good job, but he was really, really hard to guard.”
“I feel like I've won the lottery because Tommy Amaker did a much better job with his team than I did with mine,” Williams added later. “We were extremely lucky. It's the luckiest I've ever felt after a basketball game in my entire life.”