The Yale men’s basketball team entered the Ivy League Tournament as the No. 3-seeded team behind Princeton and Harvard, a clear underdog to make it to the NCAA Tournament for the second-straight year. For three fourths of tournament play, the Bulldogs proved doubters wrong, but undefeated Princeton proved to be an insurmountable challenge late in the finals.
The first day of the tournament proved to be full of upset potential. Penn almost toppled Princeton (23–6, 14–0 Ivy) in overtime after leading for much of the game. Directly after, the Bulldogs (18–11, 9–5) upset Harvard (18–10, 10–4) in a 73–71 nailbiter . Unfortunately for Yale, the championship on Sunday proved to be a different beast — the Elis gave the Tigers all they could handle in the first half, but the Princeton shooters awoke down the stretch and closed the game, winning 71–59.
“I’m extremely proud of my team in where they got us this year in terms of playing in this tournament and getting to 20 minutes to go and having a great opportunity to win it,” head coach James Jones said.
The men’s action at the Palestra nearly began with a hometown upset before a packed house at the cathedral of college basketball. Penn led Princeton by double digits with just over 15 minutes to play and would have knocked off the regular season champions had it made several free throws in the final minutes. Tiger guard and recently-crowned Defensive Player of the Year Myles Stephens forced overtime with a tip-in with six seconds to play and finished with a game-high 21 points as Princeton prevailed by eight in the extra frame.
Having to follow up the overtime clash, Yale and Harvard did not disappoint in the newest chapter of their historic rivalry. Despite the age of the matchup, it was the freshmen who dueled it out on Saturday at the Palestra.
Harvard freshman sensation Bryce Aiken had torched the Bulldogs and put up 49 total points in his first two games. The young guard did it again in the semifinal despite battling foul trouble in the first half. Aiken led all scorers with 28 in his third career game against Yale, taking almost half of Harvard’s second-half field goals.
Not to be outdone by Aiken, Eli guard Miye Oni ’20 hit nearly 50 percent of his field goals for a team-high 18 points. The freshman has scored just 17 against Harvard in the two regular season contests, but was more aggressive in the semifinal.
“I felt like I was a little passive the first two times we played them so I wanted to come out and try to set the tone for this game,” Oni said. “In a tournament atmosphere, we had to get our guys going and get to the rim.”
Yale led by eight at halftime and as many as 13 early in the second half, but could not keep the Crimson out of striking distance, and Harvard tied the contest late as the Bulldogs missed 11 free throws throughout the contest.
With Yale up by three and under 10 seconds to play, Harvard guard Siyani Chambers tried to find Aiken for the game-tying three after the freshman found separation on a screen, but forward Jordan Bruner ’20 used all of his 6-foot-9 frame to leap up and steal the pass.
“Everyone on the floor knew Bryce was getting the ball,” Bruner said.
Jones praised his freshman after the Harvard game for putting together one of his best offensive performances of the season. The South Carolina native dropped 11 points in both games.
However, no one received higher praise from Jones over the weekend than his forward Sam Downey ’17, who played his heart out in his final two collegiate basketball games. Downey seemed to single-handedly propel Yale to victory in crucial intervals down the stretch of the semifinal. The senior finished the weekend with 25 points and 16 rebounds across the two games.
After defeating the Crimson, Jones voiced his displeasure for the lack of respect shown to Downey by the Ivy-League postseason awards, in which the senior barely snuck in for All-Ivy honorable mention. The senior made 56.4 percent of his field goals on the year and was second in the conference in rebounding, numbers usually indicative of a first- or second-team All-Ivy selection.
Downey’s eight-point first half helped Yale surge out to a seven-point lead with a little over seven minutes to play in the first half of the conference championship against Princeton. Yale went on a 7–0 run midway through the half fueled by a three-pointer by guard Alex Copeland ’19, a huge slam by guard Trey Phills ’19 and a Copeland dish to Downey down low.
Copeland in particular shone under the lights of the Palestra with 26 points between Saturday and Sunday. The sophomore’s quickness should keep every Ivy League coach up at night trying to prepare for his explosive first step next season.
However, Princeton’s offense began to heat up late in the half. A pair of three pointers in the final four minutes gave the Tigers a two-point lead entering halftime. Still, with 20 minutes to play, Yale had a second-straight NCAA berth in its sights.
Just as Stephens rescued his Tigers against Penn, the sophomore did it again in the second half of the final, dispelling Yale’s hope of returning to the Big Dance. Stephens, who Jones called a “silent assassin,” finished with 23 points, combining step-back threes with post-ups on smaller Eli guards.
“I think offensively we try to take advantage of mismatches,” Stephens said. “Whether it’s posting up or driving and kicking it out or finishing at the rim we really try to take advantage of that and it helped us this weekend.”
In total, Princeton made 7–14 threes to close the game in the second half. Tiger forward Spencer Weisz — the recently-named Ivy League Player of the Year — dished out six assists in the second half after just two in the first and steered Princeton to the finish line of its 16–0 Ivy League season.
Five of the seven Bulldogs who averaged more than 20 minutes a game this season will return for Yale next year, with the notable exceptions of Downey and captain Anthony Dallier ’17, who comprise the winningest class in school history. Yale will also see the return of first-team All-Ivy point guard Makai Mason ’18 for the 2017–18 campaign.