Although the men’s basketball team wasn’t able to accomplish its ultimate goal, it ended the year with play characteristic of its season — balanced, tenacious and exciting.
The Bulldogs (14-13, 10-4 Ivy) entered this weekend with an outside chance at the Ivy League championship, but Penn (21-8, 12-1) quickly put an end to any title aspirations its visitors might have had, with an 86-58 romping of the Elis. Yale was nothing if not resilient this season and bounced back the following night at Princeton (11-16, 2-11) with a last second come-from-behind victory over the Tigers, 52-51. The win gave the Bulldogs an overall winning record for the fourth time in six years and 10 Ancient Eight victories for the first time since 2002.
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Penn wasted no time in avenging its only Ivy loss of the season Friday night and, in the process, clinched its third consecutive league title. The Quakers jumped on Yale right from the opening tip-off and found themselves leading 24-4 just eight minutes into the game. The Bulldogs would battle back to within 13 late in the half, but another explosive Penn run sent the Elis into halftime down big, 49-29.
“We didn’t get any stops to start the game,” head coach James Jones said. “It seemed like we were a step slow on every possession.”
Yale scored the first six points of the second half in an effort to salvage its title dreams, but once again the resolute Quakers put their collective foot down. A quick 9-0 run sufficiently derailed any hopes for a Bulldog comeback, and Penn cruised to the lopsided victory. The Quakers’ manhandling of the Elis was as evident on the stat sheet as it was on the court, as they shot 57 percent from the floor, outrebounded Yale 45-22 and dished out 22 assists on their 33 field goals.
“They got a big lead and a lot of easy transition buckets,” swingman Travis Pinick ’09 said. “We made a couple short runs, but it wasn’t enough. We couldn’t stop the bleeding.”
Perhaps the biggest difference between this game and Yale’s victory over Penn in New Haven was the play of Quaker stars Mark Zoller and Ibrahim Jaaber. At Lee Amphiteater, they were successfully contained by the Bulldogs to well under their season averages in essentially every major statistical category. League scoring leader Zoller led his team to their third consecutive title with a phenomenal all-around performance, racking up 22 points, 17 rebounds, six assists, four blocks and four steals. Former Ivy League Player of the Year Jaaber followed suit with 13 points, seven rebounds and seven assists of his own.
Yale’s lack of energy carried over early into the Princeton game, but the Bulldogs soon picked up the pace, determined not to taint an otherwise impressive Ivy League season by ending it with a three-game losing streak. Trailing 29-24 to start the second half, the Elis ran off 10 consecutive points to propel themselves into the lead.
“Coming back after a loss or bad practice has been one of our strong suits all season,” guard Caleb Holmes ’08 said. “I think we came out with a lot more energy and sense of urgency. We wanted to go out with a win.”
The teams went back and forth for much of the second stanza to set up an exciting season finale. Princeton guard Marcus Schroeder drove to the hoop for two of his game-high 17 points with 21 seconds remaining to give the Tigers a 51-50 lead. The Bulldogs called a set play out of the time-out for Pinick, who drove down the lane from the right wing for the game-winning lay-in with 10 seconds left to play, giving Yale its first victory in Princeton’s Jadwin Gym since 1993.
“Coach Jones called a play for me to drive to my left hand with Eric spotting up in the corner,” Pinick said. “If they helped off Eric, I’d kick it out, but they stuck on him so I was able to get all the way to the basket. Fortunately, it went in.”
Despite coming up just short of an Ivy League crown, the Elis had one of their most successful seasons in school history. Yale reached the 10-win mark in the Ancient Eight for just the eighth time in the league’s 50-year history and registered its first sweep of Princeton since 1986. Eric Flato ’08 finished the season just one three-pointer shy of the school-record 72 set by Ed Petersen in 1992.
“You feel good about what you accomplished,” Jones said. “We just fell a bit short. I feel bad for the seniors, but we have a hungry group coming back next season, and I’m excited to see what happens.”
Team members also said they are proud of what they accomplished this season and expect to build toward their goal of an Ivy League championship next year.
“We did some good things this year,” Holmes said. “It started out pretty rough, but we showed we could be a really good team at times. We have a lot of pieces coming back that are going to lead this team next year. With younger guys getting some more playing time under their belts, I think we can do something special.”