When rivals meet, crazy things tend to happen. When rivals meet in the playoffs, throw all expectations out the window.
And maybe throw up a last-second, desperation three-pointer off the glass and hope it banks in.
That’s what forward Justin Sears ’16 did with 0.7 seconds remaining in the Yale men’s basketball team’s CIT opening round game, securing a 69–68 victory against those pesky Bobcats from Quinnipiac last night.
Trailing 68–66 with 7.2 seconds remaining, Yale (16–13, 9–5 Ivy) was faced with the daunting task of traveling the full 94 feet of the court just to force overtime.
Sears had other ideas.
Sears received a heave of a pass from guard Jack Montague ’16, who was filling in for starting guard Javier Duren ’15 after the junior fouled out on the previous possession. Sears faced up his defender, took one step back to position himself behind the arc on the right wing and let it go.
On the playground, it is common courtesy to call “bank” on shots that hit the backboard. On the John J. Lee Amphitheater court, all that counted was the ball going through the basket.
“The Gods were looking down upon me and it went in,” Sears said.
The All-Ivy League First Teamer’s shot caromed cleanly off the glass and through the net, setting off a resounding and booming response from the admittedly few in attendance.
Since Yale students were still on Spring Break, not many fans came out to Yale’s campus to watch the matchup. Still, Wednesday was arguably the loudest the amphitheater had been all season long, with the atmosphere one of high-intensity playoff basketball.
With 0.7 seconds left and the length of the court to go, Quinnipiac attempted a Christian Laettner-type miracle, but the full court pass was intercepted by none other than Sears — a most appropriate ending to the back-and-forth contest.
While the game-winner propelled Yale to its second postseason victory ever and a second-round matchup at Holy Cross (20–13, 12–6 Patriot), the plan was not to go for the win on that fateful possession.
“No, no, no, no, let’s get this straight. Coach Jones did not design this play,” head coach James Jones said. “Coach Jones did not tell Justin to step back and and shoot a 3-point shot. Players make plays and, as a coach, you try to put your guys in positions to be successful. Sometimes they do what you ask them to do, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it don’t. Tonight it worked out.”
It worked out superbly for Sears, who said he saw a help defender down low and decided his best bet was to step back and go for glory. Sears ended the night with 11 points, eight rebounds, five assists, three blocks and two steals. As for that three-pointer, it was just the fourth of his career.
But it may be a sign of things to come.
“That’s the next phase of Justin’s progression, to become a 3-point shooter,” Jones said. “Maybe this is fortuitous.”
That final shot was set up by a missed free throw by Quinnipiac guard Kasim Chandler; before that, Sears hit one of two free throws with 14 seconds to play.
Duren and forward Armani Cotton ’15, however, were concerned that Sears might not even be on the court to shoot those free throws.
“Justin! Justin!” could be heard from the two key Bulldog contributors as Sears ran off the court mysteriously before his pair of free throws, much to the dismay and confusion of his teammates. He had lost a contact and was looking for a mirror.
A pocket mirror was provided on the court, but Sears was unable to complete the unexpected task before being hurried to the line by the officials. Luckily, he was able to convert better with the three-ball than he could with the contact.
“I just didn’t have the opportunity to put it back in and I didn’t want to get out of the game,” Sears said. “It was more in my head so I just decided to forget about it, shoot the free throws and see what happens.”
It was one bizarre moment in an evening full of wacky and unforgettable sequences.
The game was tight throughout, tied at 32 entering the half. After a Chandler free throw with 3:30 left to play, however, Yale appeared in danger of letting its season slip away in heartbreak.
Down by six and in a scoreless drought of more than four minutes, Duren and Montague banged home two unconscious three-pointers to square things up once more at 63. The rest is history.
The 3-point production was critical to the outcome, just as it was in Yale’s fatal loss to Harvard a couple weeks ago. That disappointing night, the Bulldogs did not make a single shot from long distance. The story flipped against Quinnipiac as Yale converted 10 attempts from deep, including a stellar 8–12 in the second half to keep its season afloat.
The Bulldogs were led by a vintage performance from Duren, who finally appeared to be fully healthy after suffering a high ankle sprain against Princeton back on Feb. 15. The floor general poured in 17 points on a highly efficient 7–11 from the floor.
The bench also provided critical production for the Elis as Montague, captain Jesse Pritchard ’14 and little-used guard J.T. Flowers ’17 combined for 18 big-time points off the bench, all thanks to three-pointers.
The victory provided some vindication for Yale athletics against Quinnipiac, as the men’s ice hockey team was eliminated from the ECAC playoffs Saturday night at the hands of the Bobcats. The loss also dashed any hopes of a title defense for the Elis.
Also noteworthy last night was the milestone reached by Jones, as the thriller was his 206th career victory as Yale’s head coach. The triumph tied him with Joe Vancisin as the men’s basketball coach with the most wins over the course of his career.
Jones will have the opportunity to lay claim to sole possession of first place when the Bulldogs take on Holy Cross on Saturday night.
Tipoff is scheduled for 7 p.m. in Worcester, Mass.