The cards were stacked against the Yale men’s basketball team in the Collegeinsider.com Tournament championship game. The Bulldogs were without their leading scorer, forward Justin Sears ’16, and had to endure a long day of travel before arriving in Kentucky for the game.
Despite everything, the Elis put up a valiant fight before falling 65–57 to Murray State. Yale was unable to overcome a cold shooting night and a record-setting defensive performance by the Racers.
“The game was obviously disappointing, but it was a tremendous opportunity to play in a championship game, since not many teams get to do that,” captain Jesse Pritchard ’14 said. “It was disappointing to lose on senior night [against Dartmouth], and everyone on the team wanted to prove to everyone out there that we could play better. I’ll cherish the last couple of weeks.”
Yale (19–14, 9–5 Ivy) was dealt a big blow before the game when Sears was ruled out with a wrist injury. The first team All-Ivy forward was hurt in the semifinal victory over VMI when he landed on his shooting arm following a hard foul.
Without their star, the Bulldogs struggled to sink shots from the outset. The Racers (23–11, 13–3 Ohio Valley) packed players in the paint in the absence of Sears’ dangerous dribble-drive game. In the first half, Yale shot just 8–37 and had eight shots blocked by the Racers. In total, Murray State blocked 14 shots, tying a school record.
“Justin is our best player,” point guard Javier Duren ’15 said in an email. “[He] has such an impact on our performance both offensively and defensively. Anytime we go without him, it’s that much harder to win.”
Pritchard agreed, saying that many of the team’s offensive struggles were related to Sears’ absence.
But even without the Plainfield, N.J. native, the Elis were within a single point at halftime. Four shots from downtown combined with a 12–3 edge on the offensive glass, including 10 rebounds by forward Brandon Sherrod ’15, kept the game tight.
“We fought,” Sherrod said in an email to the News. “This team is battle tested. We’ve erased big leads, we’ve lost and won some close games and we knew that we didn’t want to go out by playing soft and weak. We fought like champions and I thought we outworked them.”
In the second half, Murray State tried to pull away, but the Bulldogs refused to lie down. After Yale pulled into the lead soon after the intermission, the Racers went on a 9–1 run to extend their advantage to seven. The Elis responded with buckets from forward Matt Townsend ’15, Sherrod and guard Nick Victor ’16 to cut the lead down to one.
Minutes later, when tournament MVP Cameron Payne’s three pointer extended Murray State’s lead to 11, Yale went on a 10–0 run in just 2:18 to again cut the deficit to a single point. But the Bulldogs never drew that close again, making just four field goals in the final 7:42 of the second half.
“There’s no one on this team who’s going to go down without a fight,” Pritchard said. “If we’re going to lose, they’re going to have to take us out in body bags. I think we proved that tonight. We battled all the way through and we just played hard. I think we can all hold our heads high after this one.”
The entire Bulldog team struggled to shoot, hitting on just 20 of 77 shots, or 26 percent. That figure was the worst for the Elis this season, and was the team’s worst output since Nov. 12, 2012 against Saint Joseph’s.
Despite the loss, the future still looks rosy for Yale. All eight of the top scorers are underclassmen and should return, though Sherrod’s status is in question, as he will be joining the Whiffenpoofs next school year.
“The future is bright, but like every team we still have to go out and prove how good we can be,” Duren said. “This postseason tournament was a great experience and I’m glad we can build off of it. The sky is the limit, but we have to put the work in.”
Sherrod agreed, saying that the Bulldogs will be “dangerous” next year.
Both Sears and Duren were named to the all-tournament team, and each had fantastic performances throughout the CIT. Sears sunk the game-winning three against Quinnipiac in the opening round, while Duren poured in a career-high 33 points in the quarterfinal victory over Columbia.
Before winning four games in the CIT, the Bulldogs had just one previous postseason win, a victory over Rutgers in the 2002 National Invitational Tournament.