MEN’S BASKETBALL: Yale tops Tigers in OT thriller

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Photo by William Freedberg.

With a newly emblazoned target on its back, the Yale men’s basketball team survived another weekend doubleheader, sweeping Penn and Princeton at home to extend the Bulldogs’ winning streak to six.

In knocking off Penn (6–15, 3–4 Ivy) 69–54 on Friday night and barely outlasting Princeton (14–7, 2–5) the following evening, the Bulldogs (13–9, 7–1) secured their best start in conference play since the 2001-2002 season. With the tumultuous weekend slate now complete, point guard Javier Duren ’15 said the team is beginning to realize its potential.

“We’re finally believing in our team and the things we are capable of doing,” Duren said.

Despite trailing 30–19 at the half, the Bulldogs came back to force overtime before beating Princeton 66–65 to maintain a tie with Harvard for first place atop the Ivy League.

Besides the obvious difficulties of sealing the deal in an overtime conference thriller, Yale was also without the services of its point guard for the final 2:25 of regulation and the entirety of overtime.

In a scramble for a loose ball with just under five minutes left to play and Yale up by one, a Tiger fell on Duren, and the playmaker appeared to suffer a possible high ankle sprain.

“It was a great effort by the guys,” head coach James Jones said. “It says a lot that when Javier [Duren] goes out, and doesn’t play a second in overtime [that] we’re still able to win the game.”

Jones soon opted to sub in guard Isaiah Salafia ’14 who performed admirably in the final minutes of the game.

As Duren exited, he appeared to be fighting off tears, with the injury and emotions taking their collective tolls.

“I’d say [the tears were] a combination of both, knowing I couldn’t help my team and coming out of the game,” Duren said. “Sitting out in O.T. was more painful than the injury itself honestly, but I’m very proud of my guys to bounce back from a not-so-good first half to pull out the win.”

Yale forced overtime after appearing to be in jeopardy of losing its spot at the head of the Ancient Eight. The Bulldogs outshot the Tigers, but uncharacteristically turned the ball over 13 times in the first half, while Princeton committed just four turnovers before the break.

The Tigers used a 10–0 run to take an 11-point lead into the half, but that lead proved not to be big enough for Princeton.

Making up for a first half in which he played just six minutes due to foul trouble, forward Justin Sears ’16 immediately opened the second half with a jumper from the corner to cut the lead to single digits. Sears would go on to score 11 in the second half. He was helped by Duren, who scored 10 in the second before being forced to exit with his injury.

The lead went back and forth after Yale’s comeback, and the game was tied at 56 when Yale got a chance to win in regulation with the shot clock turned off.

Yale got two looks at the basket thanks to an offensive rebound, but both attempts were heavily contested. The Elis would have to win the game in overtime despite the absence of Duren. What Yale did have was a definite home-court advantage.

The John J. Lee Amphitheater was rocking for much of the second half and in overtime, with the crowd’s passion and raucousness building as the game progressed. The high-intensity atmosphere may have induced some carelessness on the part of the potentially nerve-stricken Tigers.

Princeton guard T.J. Bray, the Ivy League’s leading scorer, was able to net a game-high 20 points, but he also  committed seven of the Tiger’s 10 total turnovers.

One of those turnovers gave Yale the ball back and a chance to take the final shot in overtime, trailing by one.

The Bulldogs were unable to find an opening, forcing Jones to call a timeout with 17 seconds to play. Yale drew up a play for guard Armani Cotton ’15 to drive to the basket. When he drove, Cotton was met by a stifling defense that nearly caused him to cough up the ball. Instead, he found Salafia, who swung it to guard Jesse Pritchard ’14, a three-point specialist, in the corner.

Pritchard’s shot was deflected and did not hit rim.

“[Pritchard] gets the brick award for the game because his shot touched nothing,” Jones said jokingly after the game. “But we do what we do and that’s rebound the ball.”

Sure enough, Sears was there to clean it up. After appearing to get hacked on his first put-back attempt, Sears secured another offensive rebound and got the layup to go with just 4.4 ticks remaining on the clock.

Those final two points gave Sears 17 points despite registering a goose egg in the first half.

After the game, Sears gave credit to a former coach for his rebounding prowess.

“My coach in eighth grade always said that a lot of last-second shots are offensive rebounds. Every time someone puts the ball up, I just go to the basket,” Sears said. “I boxed my man out, got the ball and thought I got hit. I didn’t get the call so I went back up and the ball went in, fortunately.”

Having to take the ball the entire length of the court, the Tigers entrusted Bray, but the guard committed his final turnover of the game, sealing Yale’s victory.

The night before, Yale opened the weekend with a prototypical Eli effort against the Quakers. The Bulldogs combined stout defense, rebounding and interior offense en route to a 15-point victory.

Though Penn did outshoot Yale 39.6 percent to 34.6 percent from the floor, the Bulldogs forced the Quakers to commit 20 turnovers. Yale’s ability to capitalize on Penn’s miscues more than made up for the Bulldogs’ shooting struggles.

Yale also edged Penn substantially on the glass, out-rebounding the Quakers 41-30, with guard Armani Cotton ’15 leading the way with 11 boards. He ended the night with a double-double, as he also poured in 17 points.

Ten of Cotton’s points came from the charity stripe, another staple for the Yale offense. In fact, Yale more than doubled Penn’s production from the foul line, hitting 30 free throws compared to Penn’s 14.

In addition to making 11 free throws, Sears compiled perhaps his most impressive stat line of the season, with seven rebounds, four blocks and three steals in addition to his game-high 25 points.

The Bulldogs managed to take a 25–22 lead into the half despite shooting just 31 percent from the floor, but soon extended the lead after action resumed. At one point, the Elis led by 17 points before Penn cut the deficit down to just six with 4:41 left to play.

Sears answered with six unanswered points, and the trio of Sears, Cotton and Duren combined to score Yale’s final 23 points.

After the trying weekend against Penn and Princeton, the Bulldogs have ensured themselves at least one more week at the head of the Ancient Eight.

“We’ve got to be able to win the close ones,” Jones said. “[Friday night] I guess Harvard won a close one and [Saturday night], with a lot of grit, gut and effort we were able to pull it out.”

The Crimson nearly fell out of the top spot Friday night, but the Crimson prevailed in a double-overtime thriller against Columbia.

The Elis will hit the road next weekend to protect their top standing when they play at Cornell (2–19, 1–6) on Friday and at Columbia (14–10, 3–4) on Sunday.

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