It may be April, but the Yale men’s basketball team still finds itself dancing in March Madness after a 75–62 victory in the Collegeinsider.com Tournament semifinals against the Virginia Military Institute. But a larger question looms: the health of star forward Justin Sears ’16, who left the game with a wrist injury.
Despite a hostile road environment, the Bulldogs (19–13, 9–5 Ivy) held the up-tempo Keydets (22–13, 11–5 Big South) to just 62 points, well down from their season average of 89.0 points per game. They also withstood the full-court press employed by VMI and weathered many Keydet runs in the second half.
“A lot of [our play] was poise and remaining calm, cool and collected,” forward Brandon Sherrod ’15 said. “At the beginning of the game, we tried to remind ourselves that it’s just a gym and to play like we’re the only ones there. It was that motto that helped us cope with the loudness, the energy and their [second-half] runs.”
Sears credited the Bulldogs’ success in front of the near-capacity crowd to the team’s tough non-conference schedule and ability to play its own brand of basketball.
Coming into the game, one major question was whether Yale would play at VMI’s frenetic pace. The Keydets lead the country in points per game, scoring 100 points or more 10 times on the season.
But the Elis clamped down, playing at a slower pace and stymieing VMI into shooting just 40 percent from the field. Leading scorer Q.J. Peterson put up just three points on 1-for-11 shooting.
“We needed to make sure our transition defense was good,” point guard Javier Duren ’15 said of the Bulldogs’ defensive adjustments. “We needed to make sure that all five guys were back on defense. And we did a good job of that.”
In the first few minutes, however, things looked dicey for the Elis. Six quick points for the Keydets, along with two turnovers by the Yale offense, put the Bulldogs down 6–0 early. After guard Armani Cotton ’15 traded buckets with Peterson, the Elis went on a 9–2 run to take a lead that they would never relinquish.
A big part of Yale’s success came through the battle on the boards. VMI is one of the top teams in the nation in rebounding, but the Elis dominated the Keydets 45–27 on the glass. Four Bulldogs pulled down at least seven rebounds, with guard Nick Victor ’16 leading the way with nine.
“We were just bigger than them,” Duren said. “We used our size and athleticism to our advantage.”
An 11–0 run just prior to halftime delivered the Bulldogs a 10-point lead, and strong outside shooting from Victor, Cotton and forward Greg Kelley ’15 further inflated the lead to 15 with 12:10 left in the second half.
The scariest moment of the game came with 10:21 remaining and Yale holding onto a 12-point lead. Sears, who had 15 points on the night, took the ball and drove to the hoop for a dunk, but was fouled in midair by VMI’s D.J. Covington. The first team all-Ivy player fell on his wrist and immediately grabbed it while laying on the ground.
When Sears attempted his first free throw, he winced in pain and returned to the bench, where his wrist was taped up. Though he attempted to play through the injury, he soon went to the locker room.
“We have a pretty quick turnaround [for Thursday’s game]. We’ll see how he feels in the morning,” Duren said.
Sears said that he will wait until returning to New Haven after the championship game to get X-rays and MRIs. Head coach James Jones said that the Yale trainer thinks it is likely a ligament or bone injury.
After Sears’ injury, Duren steadied the offense and solidified his status as floor general. He finished with 19 points, seven rebounds and a team-high six assists. Sherrod also pitched in with good defense, notching two blocks and a steal.
With Murray State’s blowout victory over Pacific in the other semifinal, the Bulldogs will play the Racers on Thursday for the CIT championship. The game will be Yale’s fourth consecutive matchup on the road.
“We’re going to take it like every other game,” Sherrod said. “We’ll try to get some rest in between all of the traveling and play with the same confidence. If we do that and execute, we’ll be okay. We’re playing together and playing together at the right time.”
The championship will air on CBS Sports Network. Tipoff is scheduled for 7:00 p.m.