Behind Aggressive Defense, Holy Cross Shocks No. 25 Harvard

Entering their season opener against No. 25 Harvard, the Holy Cross Crusaders knew they couldn’t play cautiously. In the final game of the Coaches vs. Cancer tripleheader at TD Garden, the Crusaders came out with aggressive full-court pressure and kept it up throughout the evening. Forty minutes later, they were rewarded with 24 forced turnovers and a 58-57 upset — their first victory over a nationally ranked team since 1977.

Five Holy Cross defenders surround Wesley Saunders in a full-court press.

Five Holy Cross defenders surround Wesley Saunders in a full-court press.

“We knew it was going to be a tough game, playing against a top-25 team, so we knew we had to do something that was a little bit out of the ordinary. Tonight, it was the turnovers that they had, and we were able to capitalize enough on them to come out with the win,” Holy Cross coach Milan Brown said “We think we’re built for these types of games, playing 40 minutes of full-speed basketball — regardless of how the score turns out, we think that we can continue to put heat on people that entire time.”

The Crusaders set a tone of havoc from the start, forcing turnovers on each of Harvard’s first five possessions and turning them into an 8-0 lead. When the Crimson got the ball into the paint, they were able to score effectively — mostly via Wesley Saunders, who had 13 of the team’s first 15 points — but Holy Cross’ defense, led by guards Anthony Thompson, Justin Burrell and Eric Green, forced enough turnovers to stay within one point at halftime.

By nature, the Crusaders’ style lends itself to big runs for each team — made baskets lead to full-court pressure, which causes turnovers and more points; missed shots don’t allow Holy Cross to press, shutting off easy opportunities on the other end. True to form, they reeled off the first nine points of the second half, only to see Harvard hit right back with an 18-5 run.

But after four straight points by Steve Moundou-Missi broke a tie game with less than four minutes remaining, Holy Cross’s pressure paid off at the most opportune time. The Crimson failed to cross midcourt for three consecutive possessions — first a Green steal from Saunders, then a Siyani Chambers travel near his own baseline, and finally an overcooked pass from Chambers over the trap and out of Saunders’ reach. The Crusaders scored each time, taking a three-point lead on two Malcolm Miller free throws with a minute left.

Harvard finally secured the ball and cut its deficit to 58-57 on a hyper-athletic Moundou-Missi dunk, then earned one final possession when Green missed a jumper with 12 seconds left. But Saunders’ buzzer-beating fadeaway caromed harmlessly off the rim, and the Crusaders darted off their bench in celebration.

Justin Burrell attempts an underhanded layup after forcing a second-half steal.

Justin Burrell attempts an underhanded layup after forcing a second-half steal.

“We knew coming into the game that they were top-25, and it was a great opportunity for us to make a statement about how we want to play the entire season,” said Burrell, who finished with a team-high 16 points and four assists. “We capitalized on that from the very tip of the game.”

The Crimson’s 24 turnovers marked their most since the 2010 opener, when they committed two dozen miscues against George Mason. Chambers had an especially rough game — while hounded by Holy Cross’ quick guards for all 40 minutes, the junior committed a career-high nine turnovers while scoring only one point. “We’ve seen a lot of Siyani, and this is not what we’ve seen from him at all. It was a tough evening for him, and I know he’s going to bounce back,” Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said.

Yet the favorites still had a chance to win down the stretch, thanks to a superhuman effort from Saunders. The reigning Ivy Player of the Year dazzled the TD Garden crowd with 24 points, scoring on spinning floaters, explosive cuts and even a smooth three-pointer. Saunders played strong defense when matched up against Miller and tallied every column of the box score, including 12 rebounds, four steals and three blocks. “For a minute there, I thought Saunders was just going to say, ‘I’m just going to beat you all by myself,’” Brown said.

The Crusaders’ offense was hardly beautiful on Sunday evening, shooting 43% on two-pointers, 25% on threes and 53% from the line; in all, they managed 58 points on 66 possessions. But they consistently did just enough on offense to stay in the game. Miller shot 4-of-15 for 12 points, but his versatility at power forward helped push Harvard to small lineups that reduced its advantage in the paint. Holy Cross made just one three-pointer in the final 30 minutes, but it was Burrell’s big second-half shot that stemmed a long Crimson run. The Crusaders missed nearly half their free throws, but they made five of six down the stretch in a one-point game.

Had they shot more efficiently, the Crusaders might have cruised to a comfortable victory. As it was, their defensive pressure was enough to knock off a nationally ranked opponent — a big warning shot to the rest of the wide-open Patriot League.

Holy Cross fans raise their hands for a Justin Burrell free throw on Sunday night at TD Garden.

Holy Cross fans raise their hands for a Justin Burrell free throw on Sunday night at TD Garden.