Three years later, one spirited senior still waits for repeat

Was it really just a fluke? That’s the question that has dogged a Yale men’s basketball team that has underachieved since the Bulldogs captured a share of the Ivy League title in 2002.

Three seasons removed from the Ivy crown, the starting backcourt from the championship team — Alex Gamboa ’05 and Edwin Draughan ’05 — and the rest of the Bulldogs have another chance to prove that 2002 was not a freak occurrence. Regardless of whether Yale can make a run at the Ancient Eight title this year, the 2002 season deserves to be remembered for all of the unbelievable moments it provided.

The Bulldogs began their 2002 Ivy League campaign as inauspiciously as they have the last two years, with a home loss to Brown. But the team avenged the loss the next week, and followed it up with four more wins against the Ivy’s bottom feeders — Dartmouth, Harvard, Cornell and Columbia.

A 5-1 start in league play set the stage for a huge homestand against perennial league favorites Penn and Princeton. In those two days — Feb. 8 and 9, 2002, Yale basketball had its finest moment ever. And really, if there’s ever been a better weekend in Yale sports, I’d love to hear about it.

One of the many things that made the weekend so memorable was the sensation that most Yale sporting events never catch a sniff of: buzz. For the days leading up to the Friday game against Penn, it seemed like everyone wanted to talk about the basketball team.

Then, there were the crowds. For each game, the stands were packed, not just on the Yale side, but in the opponent’s bleachers, too. There was full capacity well before tip-off. And the energy-level was unbelievable, with the entire student section standing throughout both games.

The Penn game was a nailbiter, close throughout the entire game. The Bulldogs shot an incredible 70 percent in the second half. And, with less than two minutes remaining, Josh Hill ’05 converted a critical three-point play that gave the Bulldogs a lead they wouldn’t relinquish in the 83-78 victory. With the win, the Bulldogs had the chance to take sole possession of first in the league with a victory over Princeton.

The stage couldn’t have been more perfectly set, and everyone seemed to appreciate that fact. The Saturday crowd was even more intense — maybe ferocious is a more apt description — than the previous night’s. Really, for that one game, John J. Lee Amphitheater became Cameron Indoor Stadium. If you weren’t there, there’s probably no reason for you to believe that, but it’s true.

In any case, Princeton’s players definitely seemed shaken. The Tigers didn’t make a field goal over the course of the game’s final nine minutes, and Yale pulled away for a 60-50 win.

The final buzzer brought instant pandemonium. For a second straight night, students rushed the court — back in the day when fans were allowed to do that. Meanwhile, Ime Archibong ’03 unleashed a monster dunk after time expired. Legend has it that he took off from the foul line. I can’t confirm that, but the dunk made a great poster anyway.

The long-standing order of the Ivy League had been turned on its head. Penn and Princeton didn’t come to New Haven to lose. They came to tune up for their games against each other that have regularly decided Ancient Eight titles for decades. Suddenly, a new contender had emerged.

After two more wins over Cornell and Columbia, the Bulldogs were 9-1 in the conference and closing in on an Ivy League title and NCAA tournament berth. Then came the road trip from hell.

First, Yale traveled to Jadwin Gym for a matchup against Princeton. This was the most miserable sporting event I have ever attended. I could write on and on about how terrible this game was or what an awful place Jadwin is, but I think all I need to say is that the halftime score was 25-15, Princeton. The Tigers won 59-46.

On the following night, the Bulldogs traveled to the Palestra for the game against Penn. It was a must-win for Yale to keep control of its own destiny. Coming off the disastrous loss to Princeton and facing an intense Quaker crowd, the Bulldogs actually played very well and built a six-point lead with about six minutes to play.

Then, Penn hit a flurry of shots, the crowd got louder, and Yale unraveled. The Quakers won 72-63. Suddenly, everyone’s plans for the NCAA Tournament were on hold.

After a pair of home victories over Harvard and Dartmouth, the Bulldogs needed Princeton to lose to Penn in order to force a three-way split of the Ivy League crown. Penn won easily and the Yale players celebrated in unconventional fashion, cutting down the nets in an empty John J. Lee Amphitheater.

The playoff games to determine the Ivy League’s representative in the Big Dance were played right before Spring Break, but it didn’t seem like anyone was in a rush to skip town early. Yale brought a full contingent of fans to the Palestra for the first playoff game against Princeton.

As the clock ticked down to tip-off, I remember having the stunning realization that no Princeton fans were coming. Really, in their mostly vacant section, all the Tigers had was their band and its leader wearing ridiculous Cat-in-the-Hat style headgear. The game was a joke. My conviction that the Bulldogs were the much better team was easily confirmed in the 76-60 victory.

It all came down to the rubber match against Penn to be played at Lafayette. Despite the fact that it was now spring break, Yale students, as well as President Levin and Dean Broadhead, packed the stands. Unfortunately, the game was never close in the 77-58 Penn rout.

It was a little depressing to watch the Quakers cut the nets down, but I was positive the Bulldogs would be back. The postseason only confirmed that belief, as I traveled to watch the team pull a stunning 67-65 win over a very respectable Rutgers team in the first round of the NIT.

Even a 80-61 throttling at the hands of Tennessee Tech in the second round was not enough to reduce my enthusiasm. There was no reason to doubt that the Bulldogs, who played with no seniors during their championship run, were only going to get better.

Three years later, Yale basketball has turned tremendous expectations into disappointing 8-6 and 7-7 seasons. Will Gamboa and Draughan be able to rekindle the magic of 2002? I hope so. If not, everyone in the class of ’05 who experienced that championship run should still be able to treasure memories from a phenomenal season.

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