McNally in charge

Guard leads Harvard into big weekend

Stats can’t say it all about Harvard guard Oliver McNally, but he is fourth in the nation in free throw shooting percentage. Stats can’t say it all about Harvard guard Oliver McNally, but he is fourth in the nation in free throw shooting percentage. (Harvard University Photo)
By Michael Vega
Globe Staff / January 28, 2011

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Even as a freshman, Oliver McNally seemed to have a certain swagger. He exuded an uncommon confidence in his abilities as a guard on the Harvard men’s basketball team, averaging 5.9 points and 23.4 minutes in the 28 games he played that season.

Even though he was overshadowed by Jeremy Lin, now in the Golden State Warriors’ system, McNally made a spot for himself on Harvard’s roster and went about his business with a certain moxie.

“That’s a great word for him,’’ said Harvard coach Tommy Amaker. “That’s who he is.

“If you were to put a word around him, then ‘moxie’ is sensational and a very fitting term for McNally. That’s how we always felt about him when we were fortunate enough to get him to come to Harvard.

“He has a moxie. He has a presence. He’s a winner.

“In the position he plays, it’s incredibly important to be associated with those terms.’’

This weekend, McNally, a 6-foot-3-inch junior from San Francisco, will be counted upon to provide more than just leadership when Harvard (13-3, 2-0 Ivy League) hosts Columbia (11-5, 2-0) tonight at 7, then Cornell (4-12, 0-2) tomorrow night.

“Columbia is playing extremely well,’’ said McNally, who scored a career-high 23 points on 8-for-10 shooting (5 of 7 from the 3-point arc) in a 77-57 victory the last time Columbia visited Lavietes Pavilion last Feb. 20. “They can really score the basketball and they’ve already got two wins against Cornell, which is pretty impressive having to win at their place.

“Cornell, the fact they’ve lost a lot of close games isn’t reflected in their record, which isn’t looking too good, but they got a couple of guys on the team who played good minutes on a Sweet 16 team, and the fact they’re still the defending champs of the league, they’re going to be tough, too.

“It’s a good way for us to measure where we’re at in the league against two tough teams. It could be a huge weekend for us, if we were to get two wins.’’

It could also serve as another measuring stick for McNally, who has made a nice transition from being Lin’s understudy to team leader.

“Jeremy Lin did so much for our team on both ends of the floor,’’ said McNally, who ranks fourth on the team in scoring (10.6 points per game) and rebounding (3.9), but second in assists (3.4), steals (1.3), and minutes per game (32.3).

“I think what our team has been able to do this year is that each person has been able to shoulder a little bit of the responsibility,’’ said McNally, who is a captain with junior forward Keith Wright. “No one person is going to come in and do what [Lin] did. No one yet on this team.

“There was a leadership void with a bunch of seniors and our two captains gone from last year, but I’ve been really excited and fortunate to be put in the role.’’

Asked to expand on the definition of his role, McNally paused.

“Just to be the quarterback of the team, essentially,’’ he said. “Brandyn [Curry] primarily plays on the ball. But I just try to get into the offense, get people the ball, make good plays, and make good shots.

“I think that’s what our team’s known for, especially our guards — guys who can play basketball. Whether it’s Brandyn playing point guard, or me, or Christian [Webster] making a lot of shots, we just all play off each other.

“But, yeah, I just try to do whatever the team needs in a certain game, whether it’s me getting people going, or me shooting the ball or hitting some shots to try to do that.’’

To which NFL quarterback would he liken himself: Brett Favre or Tom Brady?

“Oh, I don’t know about that,’’ McNally said with a chuckle. “I really do try to be a steady force on the team, keeping everyone together.

“That’s why I took it so personally when we came out so flat against Dartmouth, because I think that lies on my and Keith’s shoulders as cocaptains. That’s a big part of my game, just being a leader on the floor.’’

After romping to a 68-53 win at Dartmouth Jan. 8, the Crimson may have taken their Ivy League opponents from Hanover, N.H., a tad lightly in the rematch last Saturday at Lavietes. McNally said the Crimson were staggered when Dartmouth “punched us in the mouth’’ by building a 40-28 lead with 15:36 remaining.

Harvard, though, maintained its composure and mounted a 23-2 run to pull out a 59-50 victory.

McNally was one of four players to score in double figures for Harvard, tallying 12 with 9-for-10 shooting from the foul line. McNally is tied for fourth in the nation in free throw percentage at 93.7 (59 of 63).

“You can look at his numbers and that still doesn’t tell the story,’’ Amaker said. “I mean, you can see how well he’s playing and how efficient he is. He has a tremendous work ethic, but he’s our vocal leader. If there’s one voice and person who has taken the reins of the team — from a vocal leadership standpoint — it’s been McNally.

“He’s the voice and we talk about the quarterback role and he’s still playing the backcourt. Brandyn is still the playmaking-type of point guard and Oliver is more the quarterback who’s very efficient and that’s the role he’s taken over on this squad.’’

If the situation arises, McNally is not timid about knocking down important shots.

“You look at a lot of plays he’s made in his time here, he’s made big plays,’’ Amaker said. “They include taking and making big shots, big foul shots, late-game situations. Our game against Monmouth, we’re down and he’s stepping up and burying big-time threes.

“We were struggling in our game against Dartmouth here and the big shots he was able to make, he has a knack for those moments and making those plays.

“And he has the confidence, the moxie, and the presence — and the will — to come through in those moments.’’

Michael Vega can be reached at