A look of sweet satisfaction was strikingly evident on the face of each member of the Yale men’s basketball team following this weekend’s play.
After kicking off the season by winning only two of their first 10 games, the tenacious Bulldogs (9-10, 5-1 Ivy) have since silenced naysayers and critics alike, emerging victorious in six of their last seven contests and claiming sole possession of first place in the Ivy League. In arguably the most challenging weekend of the season thus far, Yale earned the respect of its Ancient Eight rivals, handily defeating perennial preseason favorites, Princeton and Penn, 43-35 and 77-68 respectively. It marks the third time in the past six years that the Elis have swept the all-important Penn-Princeton weekend.
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“We’ve gone from being the hunters to the hunted now,” said forward Casey Hughes ’07, who recorded his second double-double of the season, posting 15 points and 13 rebounds. “We’ve got a bull’s-eye on our back, and we are ready to accept that responsibility.”
Hoping to build on last weekend’s road momentum in which the team swept foes Harvard and Dartmouth, Yale returned home this weekend to entertain Princeton, a team that has never started an Ivy League season by losing the first three games. Unfortunately for Princeton, that record came to an end Friday night, as the Bulldogs beat the defensive-minded Tigers at their own game.
Though Princeton entered the game leading the nation in scoring defense, it was the determined Elis who held their opponents to an embarrassing four second-half field goals for a grand total of 11 points. No Tiger scored in double digits, and the team shot a dismal 16.7 percent from the floor in the second half, posting the lowest point total against Yale in 16 years.
With the score tied at 35 with just under three minutes remaining, forward Travis Pinick ’09 sparked a late Eli run that put the Tigers away for good. After drilling a fadeaway bank shot from the left wing, Pinick displayed his defensive prowess on the subsequent possession, swatting a potential Princeton layup out of bounds. Pinick would end the game with six points and a career-high 10 rebounds for the Bulldogs.
Though Princeton proved to be a solid defensive win for the Elis, a far more gratifying and unquestionably more exciting victory came the following night against Penn. With both squads vying for the coveted top spot, the stakes were high and the level of play fierce. Swarming defensive pressure and solid offensive execution allowed the Bulldogs to take care of business down the stretch in one of their finest all-around performances of the season.
“Anytime you get a win, you feel good about it,” head coach James Jones said. “But Penn has been at the top of the league for a number of years, and it does add a little extra to beat a team of that caliber.”
Penn used a 12-0 run to take an 18-11 advantage early in the game, but the explosive play of forward Casey Hughes ’07 ignited his teammates and the home crowd of over 2,500 strong. Intense defensive pressure by the Bulldogs led to several breakaway opportunities for the Connecticut native, two of which he finished off with uncontested, high-flying dunks. Hughes showed he could get it done on the defensive end as well, emphatically swatting a sure Penn layup into the cheerleaders on a Quaker fast break.
“Casey is the biggest, strongest, most athletic player at his position in the league,” Jones said. “Asking a kid to stop their best player, rebound, and score is asking a lot. But he stepped up big and did what he needed to do.”
Center Matt Kyle ’08 set the tone for the Bulldogs early in the second half, slashing through a number of Quaker would-be rebounders for a forceful put-back slam off a Caleb Holmes ’08 miss. Holmes would obviate the need for Kyle on the next play, launching a long three-pointer that found nothing but the bottom of the net to give Yale a 45-35 lead.
Just as Penn was poised to make a comeback, the Bulldogs put their collective foot down. Point guard Eric Flato ’08 maneuvered through the Penn defense for a pretty left handed lay-in and followed it up with a three-point bomb. On the following Quaker possession, a Jason Abromaitis ’07 rejection set up Caleb Holmes for a bank shot from the left wing, and Yale found itself up comfortably, 59-45. Penn would pull back with just over a minute remaining, but solid foul-shooting by the Bulldogs sealed the victory. Flato ended the game with 21 points — his third 20-point effort in the last five outings — and Caleb Holmes chipped in 17.
Team members said that while they look forward to the challenge of hitting the road next weekend, they are glad they were able to play well for their home crowd. The fans showed their appreciation of their team’s efforts, rushing the floor as the final buzzer sounded to congratulate the Bulldogs on a fine performance.
“When we have our fans’ support, it really helps,” Caleb Holmes said. “Sometimes we can’t even hear ourselves talk and we’re struggling to communicate, but it really gets us going.”
Yale travels to New York next weekend to defend its first place record, facing off against Cornell and Columbia.