Elis fold under pressure of Princeton, Penn

The men’s basketball team’s hopes at earning an Ivy League championship and NCAA tournament bid took a serious blow this weekend as Yale dropped a pair of games at perennial Ivy powers the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton.

The story of the weekend was Yale’s offensive execution, or lack thereof. In a 72-63 loss to Penn (21-6, 8-3 Ivy), Yale (17-9, 9-3) failed to execute in the final minutes as the Quakers rallied for a victory. The previous night, the Bulldogs had their worst offensive game of the season in losing to Princeton (14-9, 9-2), 56-49. Yale now sits in second place in the league standings, half a game behind Princeton and half a game ahead of Penn.

One win this weekend would have kept Yale in control of its own destiny in its quest for an Ivy League championship, but the pair of losses leaves the team needing some help. If the Bulldogs win their two remaining games, at home next weekend versus Harvard and Dartmouth, and Princeton loses one of its final three games, at Columbia, Cornell and Penn, Yale will at least tie for the Ivy League championship. Penn, Princeton and Yale are all alive in the title chase, and a two-way or three-way tie for the title could occur, with a playoff held among the tied teams to determine who earns the league’s automatic NCAA tournament berth.

“We are not in control of our destiny, but we still have a chance to reach our goal,” Yale head coach James Jones said. “It’s not over by a long shot.”

Leading 57-51 over Penn with just over six minutes remaining, the Elis seemed poised to keep their fate in their hands. The young Yale team had kept its composure down the stretch throughout league play, but that was not the case Saturday night.

Koko Archibong’s 3-pointer and Andy Toole’s conventional 3-point play tied the score at 57. After one Yale free throw, Penn’s Archibong made two free throws to give Penn its first lead of the game, 59-58, with 3:09 remaining. Yale came down the floor, and Alex Gamboa ’05 turned the ball over on an errant entry pass to T.J. McHugh ’03.

The Elis came up with a key defensive stop on the ensuing Penn possession, but Matt Minoff ’04 had the ball stolen from him as he dribbled up the court. Penn converted on this turnover with a 3-pointer from Tim Begley to up its lead to 62-58.

After Yale captain Ime Archibong ’03 made a pair of free throws to pull Yale within 2 points at 62-60 with 1:27 left, Yale looked like it had another key defensive stop when Penn’s Ugonna Onyekwe could not control a pass. But the ball ended up in the hands of a wide-open Jeff Schiffner, who buried the 3-pointer that buried the Bulldogs, 65-60, with under a minute remaining. Penn made seven of eight free throws to ice the game.

“This is the best we have played and lost,” Jones said. “The ball started bouncing the opponent’s way.”

The most important bounce came on the Schiffner 3-pointer. Trailing by only 2 points, the Bulldogs needed a defensive stop and looked like they had it when Onyekwe failed to handle a pass in the low post.

“That was unlucky,” Yale’s Archibong said. “We covered down, had a trap, forced a bad pass. [Schiffner] just happened to pick it up and knock it down.”

Luck had something to do with the Quakers’ comeback, but clutch Penn shooting combined with a lack of Yale offense was the real reason for the turnaround. During the game’s final 14 minutes, the Bulldogs made only three field goals and missed multiple layups and open looks.

That was a far cry from the first half, as Yale capitalized on Penn’s shaky perimeter defense, hitting seven 3-pointers en route to a 35-28 halftime lead. Despite the 3-point barrage and a breakaway slam dunk by Edwin Draughan ’05, the half’s most memorable basket was an alley-oop from Gamboa to Archibong.

Gamboa led Yale with 15 points, hitting five of seven shots from beyond the arc. Draughan was the only other Eli in double-digits, with 11. Toole led all scorers with 20 points, and Onyekwe added 18 for the Quakers, winners of six straight.

When the final buzzer sounded, the Penn fans rushed the court in celebration.

“This is a very, very good win for us in so many ways,” said Penn head coach Fran Dunphy, who did not recall a time when the fans stormed the floor for a win over Yale. “That is a testament to Yale and how well they have played this year.”

Friday’s game against Princeton was anything but a testament to Yale’s success this season. The Bulldogs’ 46 points was their lowest output of the season, and most of those points came in garbage time — Yale had scored only 21 points in all after 30 minutes of play.

“We didn’t execute,” Jones said. “We didn’t do the things we had been doing the rest of the season.”

Despite making only six of 20 field-goal attempts and turning the ball over 11 times in the first half, the Elis were only down 20-15 with less than 30 seconds left in the first half. But Princeton’s Will Venable stole the ball from McHugh and went in for an uncontested layup. Princeton then got the ball back with two seconds left and inbounded it to Mike Bechtold, who swished a 30-foot 3-pointer as the buzzer sounded to give Princeton a 25-15 lead at the break. In the second half, Yale never got within 10 points.

“That is a huge momentum swing,” McHugh said. “We needed to come back and step it up in the first five minutes of the second half, and we didn’t quite do that.”

The Bulldogs shot under 35 percent in the game and made only two of 16 3-point attempts.

“The key to tonight’s game was our defense,” Princeton head coach John Thompson III said. “There was a lot of energy, a lot of communication, a lot of support for each other.”

The Tigers also received support from a hapless Yale offense. The Bulldogs never established their inside game and missed open perimeter shots they normally convert.

“I don’t think the [pre-game] hype got to us,” Jones said. “[After missing some early shots,] we got a little bit tight and didn’t play aggressive offense.”

Yale players said they could find some solace in the much-improved performance against Penn the next night, but the weekend still adds up to two losses for the Bulldogs.

“I haven’t felt that beat up or bent out of shape about a game in a while,” Archibong said of the Princeton loss. “Yeah, it was frustrating, yeah, it was disappointing, but I can’t dwell on that now.”

With two must-win games at home next weekend to have a shot at the title, the Elis have more important things to think about.

Notes: Paul Vitelli ’04 injured his left knee in the Princeton contest. He played the next night at Penn — scoring 6 points in 18 minutes — but was limping noticeably when he came off the floor — Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl attended both Yale games this weekend. A Sports Illustrated photography crew was at the Princeton game.

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