Two weeks ago tonight, the men’s basketball team was at a crossroads.
After starting the league with three straight wins, the team lost two roads games at the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton, then returned home only to fall to lowly Cornell. With three league losses, the idea of an Ivy League crown did not seem to be in the realm of possibility. Only six games in, the season looked as if it were over.
But looks can be deceiving.
Since that Cornell loss, a revitalized Yale squad (9-13, 6-3 Ivy) has won three games in a row. At 6-3 in league play, the Elis are in a three-way tie for first place with Penn and Princeton. The Bulldogs look to remain atop the standings when they travel to New York this weekend to take on Columbia (10-13, 5-5) tonight at 7:30 (WYBC-AM 1340) and Cornell (7-16, 3-7) tomorrow at 7:30 (WYBC-AM 1340).
“This last weekend [we] played our best basketball of the year,” said Yale head coach James Jones, referring to the team’s home sweep of Dartmouth and Harvard.
The Elis played with consistent aggressiveness and intensity on the defensive end for the first time all season, and that play allowed Yale to earn season sweeps of the Big Green and the Cantabs for the first time since 1982-83.
“We’ve just got to come out with that same defensive intensity,” captain Neil Yanke ’01 said.
Columbia is a team familiar with defensive intensity. The Lions, winners of seven straight home games, used a stifling defense to post the first weekend sweep over Penn and Princeton last Friday and Saturday since Dartmouth did it in March 1989. Columbia held Princeton to 27 percent shooting from the floor and Penn to only 30 percent.
But Columbia head coach Armond Hill said his team cannot afford to dwell upon past wins.
“Last weekend is over,” said Hill, mentioning that his team needs to prepare for a “pumped” Eli team.
Columbia should also be pumped for its contest with the Elis, who dealt the Lions one of their toughest losses of the year only two weeks ago in New Haven. Columbia led by 20 points in the second half, but the Bulldogs staged a thrilling comeback, defeating the Lions on a buzzer-beating layup in double overtime.
“We should have lost to Columbia,” forward Tom Kritzer ’01 said. “They are going to be gunning for us.”
Leading the Lion attack will be junior forward Craig Austin, who lit it up for 31 points in the first meeting between the two teams. Austin is third in the league in scoring, averaging 17.4 points per game and fourth in three-point shooting at just under 41 percent from behind the arc.
In recent games, Lion center Chris Wiedemann has emerged as the low-post complement to Austin’s outside attack. The 6-foot-9-inch sophomore has scored in double figures in his last five games, averaging 13.8 points per game in that stretch.
Wiedemann will match up against Yanke, who is coming off his best weekend of the year. The 6-foot-11-inch center averaged 19 points and nine rebounds in Yale’s wins over Dartmouth and Harvard last weekend.
“Yanke is the senior, the experienced player,” Hill said. “He is obviously bigger and stronger. We’ll have our hands full.”
After their contest with Columbia, the Bulldogs will make the trek up to Ithaca, N.Y., to take on Cornell. In its last game, the Big Red ended a 15-game losing streak to Princeton, downing the Tigers 66-49.
Cornell’s only Ivy League road win of the season was its 73-70 defeat of the Elis two weeks ago.
“We may have let one slip away at home,” Jones said. “We didn’t think we played well in that game.”
The Big Red took advantage of a sluggish Yale defense, especially from three-point territory, where Cornell made 11 of 21 attempts. The Elis could not stop Big Red forward Ray Mercedes, who went eight for nine from the floor in that game, including four for four from three-point range, to score 22 points.
Jones said his team did not believe it could contend for the Ivy title after dropping games at Penn and Princeton, causing Yale’s subpar performance against Cornell.
Now the Bulldogs find themselves in the thick of the Ivy League race, but Jones emphasized that his team cannot afford to focus on the big picture.
“All we have been talking about is taking it game by game,” Jones said.
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