The men’s basketball team has found its silver lining.
After reaching the low point of its season with losses to Gardner-Webb University and the Division III school Macalester College in the Poinsettia Holiday Classic in Greenville, S.C., Yale responded with rejuvenated intensity and improved team defense to post three straight wins.
The Elis (10-6, 2-0 Ivy) upset Clemson for their first win over an ACC opponent in nearly three decades and followed that with a weekend sweep of Ivy League foes Columbia and Cornell to start conference play. With 12 games left to play, the team’s 10 wins match its season total from a year ago.
“We are a better basketball team than we were last year,” head coach James Jones said after his team started off 2-0 in league play for the third straight season. That was evident in the team’s last three games, as Yale secured its second three-game winning streak of the season.
In the first half against Columbia (7-8, 0-2) Friday night at the John J. Lee Amphitheater, the Bulldogs played what Jones described as their best half of basketball all year, building a 40-25 lead at the break en route to a 65-54 win. Intense and aggressive defense stifled the Lions’ attack as Yale used a full-court press early on to set the tone for the game. The Lions turned the ball over 12 times in the first frame and 21 times overall.
Two 3-pointers by Matt Minoff ’04 and Alex Gamboa ’05 to close out the half gave Yale the 15-point lead.
The Bulldogs picked up right where they left off to start the second half, scoring the first 5 points for an 11-0 run spanning both halves to take a 45-25 lead with 17:05 left. The lead was as high as 22 points before Columbia narrowed the final margin in the last minutes of the game.
“We came out hard and never looked back,” said Scott Gaffield ’04, who led Yale scorers with 10 points. “We definitely wore Columbia down because they are not a deep team.”
Nine players registered at least 17 minutes for the Bulldogs, using fresh legs to maintain tough defensive pressure through most of the game. Along with Gaffield’s four for six shooting performance off the bench, Josh Hill ’04 played a superb all-around game, scoring 6 points and hauling in a team-high eight rebounds before fouling out.
“Josh just came out with such great energy tonight,” Jones said. “Everybody just feeds off it.”
The bench effort the crowd enjoyed most, though, was that of Chris Leanza ’03, who hit the hardwood for the first time this season when he checked into the game at the 14:45 mark of the first half to a loud ovation. Leanza, the Bulldogs’ leading scorer last year, missed the team’s first 14 games recovering from off-season shoulder surgery.
On a night with a lot to cheer about, the loudest roar from the crowd came with 2:42 left in the game when Leanza swished a baseline 3-pointer for his first field goal of the year. His final line was 5 points, one assist and one rebound in 17 minutes of work.
“I felt great to be back out there,” Leanza said. “It was the greatest feeling in the world.”
The next night against Cornell (3-12, 0-2), a worse feeling pervaded the Lee Amphitheater as the Big Red put on a late surge to narrow a 15-point deficit with a 14-3 run late in the game. With 31 ticks left on the clock, Paul Vitelli ’04 made a pair of free throws to up the Eli advantage to 75-69. After a Cornell layup, Vitelli inbounded the ball to a streaking Gamboa who layed the ball in to give Yale a 6-point lead. The Big Red, hot from 3-point range all night, hit a trey four seconds later to tighten the score at 77-74. Gamboa was immediately fouled on the inbound pass and made both free throws to ice the Eli win, 79-74.
“We did not play our best game and we were still able to win,” Jones said. “I think that speaks well for us.”
The Big Red opened the game on a blistering pace from 3-point range, making six of their first seven attempts. On the other end, Yale was as cold from downtown as Cornell was hot, missing 11 of its first 12 3-point attempts.
“They wouldn’t miss a three,” said Minoff, who had a career-high 18 points and seven rebounds in 21 minutes off the bench. “I think one time I tipped the ball and it still went in.”
Despite the imbalance from beyond the arc, the halftime score was knotted at 31 because the Elis took care of the basketball, committing only three turnovers in the half, and were able to score inside with 16 points in the paint.
In the second half, though, the Elis found their touch from the outside as they hit four of their first seven 3-point attempts to gain control of the game with a 17-2 run and take a 48-33 lead. Minoff, who was six for six on shots from the floor, hit two treys in that span.
Vitelli led Yale with 20 points and nine rebounds and center T.J. McHugh ’03 chipped in 11 points and five boards for the Elis. Jacques Vigneault led all scorers with 21 points as he hit a Cornell-record seven 3-pointers.
Against Clemson in Clemson, S.C., the Bulldogs faced another player who was on fire from long-range, as guard Tony Stockman kept the Tigers ahead of the Elis for much of the game with six of nine shooting from downtown. The biggest 3-pointers of the night, though, came from Vitelli in the game’s final minutes.
With Yale trailing by a point, 53-52, with under four minutes to play, Vitelli made three straight 3-pointers in a span of 43 seconds to give Yale a 61-56 lead with 3:08 to play.
Despite Yale’s shaky free throw shooting down the stretch, when Edward Scott missed a desperation 3-pointer at the buzzer, the Bulldogs secured their biggest upset of the year with a 68-65 victory.
Edwin Draughan ’05 had 16 points for Yale, as did Minoff. The Tigers tried to attack Minoff on the defensive end, but Minoff, a 6-foot-5 guard, had a career best six blocks.
“They must have thought I was slow or something,” said Minoff, one of the Elis’ best defensive players. “I wasn’t going to have that.”
The Jan. 2 win at Clemson was Yale’s second road victory of the year against a major conference opponent. The Bulldogs won at Penn State 87-74 on Nov. 18, ending the Nittany Lions’ 54-game home non-conference winning streak.
Notes: With 14 3-pointers over the weekend, the Bulldogs have connected on 123 for the season, which puts them on pace to shatter last year’s school record of 172 3-pointers in a season. With 12 games left, the Elis are on track to hit 215 treys — Yale was trailing Columbia before the game even started because of a technical foul given because an Eli player slam dunked during opening warm-ups. The Lions’ Craig Austin hit one of two free throws to give his team a 1-0 advantage heading into the tipoff — Reserve Mark Lovett ’05, who averages 15 minutes and 5.6 points per game, has missed the last three games with a foot injury.