Down but not out. Despite dropping further behind Penn with an unexpected loss to Columbia this Saturday, the men’s basketball team still has a chance at the Ivy League crown, though the road to glory appears far more difficult than before.
Hope for a long-awaited championship permeated the proud home crowd of 2,056 following the Bulldogs’ 68-55 trouncing of third-place Cornell on Friday. But those same fans were left in dismay and disbelief after Columbia avenged the defeat of its New York brethren and spoiled Senior Night in the process, with an 82-64 romp of its own. Yale’s loss, combined with Penn’s 80-78 victory over Dartmouth, puts the Elis a game and a half behind the league-leading Quakers with only one weekend of play remaining.
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“This was the worst game we’ve played by far all season, not even close,” head coach James Jones said. “We haven’t broken all season until tonight.”
If Saturday against Columbia was the worst game of the season, Friday against Cornell was arguably one of the best. The Bulldogs sent a resounding message to the rest of the league, declaring their merit as a title threat by fending off the Big Red and adamantly denying them any chance at an Ivy League ring this season. Forward Casey Hughes ’07 celebrated his 22nd birthday and his return from injury with one of his most electrifying performances all season. Hughes employed a combination of stifling defense and crowd-pleasing dunks on his way to 18 points, eight rebounds and four steals on the evening, more than making up for his lackluster performance against the Big Red the first time around.
“I would be lying if I said there wasn’t some extra motivation tonight,” Hughes said after the game. “I feel some redemption right now.”
Though the Bulldogs struggled shooting the ball in the first half, their swarming defense led to a number of easy offensive opportunities, allowing them to maintain a small lead in the early going. Hughes triumphantly declared his return when he deftly swiped the ball from Cornell guard Geoff Reeves and drove the length of the court for a rim-rattling, two-handed throw down, thus removing any doubt that the foot injury he suffered last week against Dartmouth was still an issue.
Yale entered the locker room leading 27-22, and used a quick 8-0 spurt, featuring back-to-back alley-oops, to excite the crowd and extend its lead early in the second half. But Cornell surged back with an 11-0 run of its own to pull within two points, 37-35. Down the stretch, it was the repeated penetration of floor general Eric Flato ’08 that proved crucial for the Elis to come away with the victory. Time and again, Flato would slice his way to the hoop through a number of defenders, forcing the Big Red to focus on him while leaving other Bulldogs unguarded.
“Flato drew in two or three people every time he drove, so nobody was boxing out,” Hughes said. “I just took advantage.”
Despite the Elis’ fine performance, Cornell remained close deep into the second half, keeping within four points with four minutes left to play. Flato ended all hope the Big Red might have had by drilling back-to-back three pointers, as the student section erupted in a chant of “Eric Flato” to show its appreciation.
“[Flato] was terrific,” Cornell head coach Steve Donahue said. “In terms of guards, he’s as good as anybody in the league.”
Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, they were not able to carry Friday’s momentum into the Columbia game. Columbia started the match like a team on a mission, exploding for a 15-0 run and never looking back. Yale attempted to fight its way back and got within six points with just over five minutes left in the half, but the Lions responded immediately with a 16-4 run to take a 44-29 advantage into the locker room.
The Bulldogs are not unaccustomed to coming from behind for victories, doing so in five of their nine Ivy league wins this season, but Columbia made certain not to become the sixth victim. The Lions started the second stanza by converting eight of their first 10 shots and led by as many as 23 at one point. All in all, Columbia shot almost 60 percent for the game, dished out 22 assists on their 31 field goals, and outrebounded Yale 31-20 — a thorough dismantling of the Elis.
The disappointing loss makes an Ancient Eight championship difficult but not impossible. For Yale to win its first title since 2002, the Bulldogs must defeat both Penn and Princeton on the road next weekend, and Penn must lose to one of its other two opponents.
“We’ve been resilient,” Jones said. “I would suspect that we will have a great practice on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday in preparation to go play Penn and Princeton the last two games of the season.”