Last season, the Elis swept the season series against both Princeton and Penn for the first time since the official start of the Ivy League in 1956–’57.
After blowing out Penn and toppling Princeton in overtime last month, the Bulldogs entered last weekend with a chance to sweep the season series again. They succeeded against Penn, winning 70–63, but not before stalling against Princeton the night before, falling 57–46.
The Elis (15–11, 9–3 Ivy) continue to dominate on the boards and are still holding opponents to below average shooting from beyond the arc, but they have struggled as of late to produce scoring opportunities around the basket. Opposing Ivy League teams have taken note of Yale’s strong inside game and are crowding the paint with multiple defenders in an effort to discourage the Elis and their number one offensive option, forward Justin Sears ’16, from scoring down low.
“It’s been a little bit different,” Sears said. “Teams are packing it in now. They’re sending two guys at me after the primary defender. I’ve been working on the midrange game to extend the defense, but it’s hard to score right now.”
Guard Javier Duren ’15 returned against Princeton after missing last week’s matchups with Cornell and Columbia due to an ankle injury.
Duren had 10 assists to just three turnovers this past weekend, in addition to nine boards and five steals. Duren struggled shooting from the floor, however, going a combined 5–24 over the weekend, but he said there may be a silver lining in the injury.
“This ankle injury is forcing me to be productive in other ways,” he said. “I’ve been looking for ways to get my teammates involved. I’m finally understanding how defenses are playing us and seeing the openings where I can get my teammates going instead of forcing my shot or forcing the action.”
On Friday, the Elis took on the Tigers (17–8, 5–6). The last time Yale and Princeton faced off on Feb. 15, the result was an instant classic. In that game, the Elis got the better of their opponents after Sears scored following an offensive rebound with just 4.4 seconds left in overtime, giving Yale a one-point victory and extending its winning streak to six games.
Much of the first half on Friday resembled that last matchup; neither team was able to gain much of an edge. The Elis struggled to score as a team, but Sears kept Yale in it with an impressive 19 points on 7–9 shooting as Yale went into halftime down 27–26.
In the second half, Princeton got to the line a startling 19 times after taking just four attempts from the charity stripe in the first half. The Tigers also succeeded in limiting Sears to just three points on 1–3 from the field, while Princeton guard T.J. Bray scored an efficient 12 points to push his team ahead. Duren chipped in 11, but those points came on just 3–9 shooting.
“It was kind of neck and neck the entire time,” Duren said. “You knew one team was going to break away and unfortunately it was Princeton. They got us with a couple of back door cuts and it really opened the offense.”
Duren finished with 13 points, five rebounds, four assists and three steals. Sears had 22 points to go along with his nine boards and three blocks. The rest of the Elis had a tough time; no Bulldog recorded more than one made field goal or scored more than three points.
On Saturday, the Bulldogs met the Quakers (6–19, 3–8). After losing the previous night, Duren said the Elis were determined to play better and focused on not letting their past errors affect their play.
“We think of each game as a one-game playoff,” Duren said. “Given that we lost on Friday, we didn’t want to let that affect our play on Saturday. In the Ivy League, it’s a quick turnaround, so you have to be mentally prepared for that. I think we did a good job.”
For the Elis, it would be Sears and Duren leading the show again. Sears turned in another masterful performance, decimating the Quakers to the tune of 24 points and forcing Penn’s frontcourt of forward Fran Dougherty and center Darien Nelson-Henry into nine fouls. Duren continued to contribute on multiple fronts, leading all starters in rebounds, assists, threes and free throws made.
Yale fell behind early, but clawed its way back. After Penn guard Tony Hicks hit a three to bring the Quakers within one possession, Duren answered back by nailing a three of his own to give the Elis a 33–27 lead at the break.
The Elis never trailed in the second half, but the game remained close. Penn got within two points after Hicks nailed a three with 25 seconds remaining to bring the score to 65–63, but the Elis kept their cool and hit their free throws to ice the game at 70–63.
Sears had two blocks and four rebounds to compliment his game-high 24 points. Duren finished with 14 points, five boards, six assists and two steals. Guard Nick Victor ’16 also turned in a strong all-around performance with six points, five rebounds, three assists and three steals.
The Elis will now prepare to host the league-leading Crimson this upcoming Friday. The game will be shown on NBC Sports Network and will feature the Ivy League’s two best teams, as well as its best rivalry. Sears and Duren both said the team is confident in its ability to repeat its strong performance from Yale’s last matchup with Harvard.
“We feel great,” Duren said. “It’s one of those games you circle on the calendar before the season starts. Now it’s here. We have a great level of confidence on our team. As long as we stay focused and stick to what we do best, I like our chances.”
The Elis tip off against Harvard this Friday at 7:30 p.m. in the John J. Lee Amphitheater.