The men’s basketball team jumped into first place in the Ivy League standings this weekend after sweeping past the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton in front of two vocal sellout crowds at the John J. Lee Amphitheater.

With an 83-78 victory over Penn (16-6, 3-3 Ivy) Friday night and a 60-50 win over Princeton (10-8, 5-1) on Saturday, Yale (15-7, 7-1) has emerged as the team to beat in a competitive race for the Ivy League championship. The two wins gave the Elis their first weekend sweep of Penn and Princeton since 1988.

“It’s good to be the king,” Yale head coach James Jones said after Saturday night’s 10-point win over the Tigers. “It’s been a long time coming.”

There is a lot of basketball left to play before the Bulldogs can lay claim to an Ancient Eight crown, but at 7-1 the team is off to its best start in league play since the 1962 Ivy season — the last time the Bulldogs won an outright Ivy League title. With six games remaining and a one-game lead over second-place Princeton, Yale’s fate is in its own hands as it pursues a conference title and the automatic NCAA tournament berth that comes with it.

“Last year, we were in the race, but we folded a little bit. We didn’t get the big win when we needed it,” T.J. McHugh ’03 said after the Penn win. “This was a big win for us.”

This weekend, the Bulldogs showed why they are a championship-caliber team on both ends of the court, surpassing Penn with a nearly unstoppable offense and dispatching Princeton with a stifling defense. A pair of veterans, McHugh and captain Ime Archibong ’03, paced the Elis as they outplayed their opponents in the final minutes of both games.

Trailing 43-42 with eight and half minutes to play against Princeton, Edwin Draughan ’05 made the extra pass to a wide-open Alex Gamboa ’05, who nailed a 3-pointer from the top of the key to reclaim the lead for the Bulldogs. McHugh and Archibong then combined for 10 of Yale’s next 12 points, ending on a stunning Archibong dunk that gave Yale a 57-50 lead with 1:24 left. Yale extended its lead from the free-throw line while Princeton missed a number of rushed 3-point attempts on the offensive end.

In fact, nothing but free throws went through the hoop for the Tigers in the last nine minutes and 24 seconds of the game, as the Yale defense held them without a field goal down the stretch.

“They lost their cool and we didn’t,” forward Paul Vitelli ’04 said. “We stayed with it.”

Princeton’s offensive struggles at the end of the game were not new, as Yale did a great job disrupting the Tiger offense all night. With an energetic defensive effort, the Bulldogs denied Princeton its trademark backdoor cuts while holding the Tigers to 37 percent shooting.

Kyle Wente was the only member of the Orange and Black to find his touch, scoring 16 points on 5-of-9 shooting. But when Wente fouled out in the final two minutes, Princeton’s offense lost its only viable option.

McHugh led Yale with 15 points, followed by 12 from Archibong and 10 from Vitelli.

Nine of Vitelli’s points came on a trio of first-half 3-pointers as Yale took a 24-18 lead 11 minutes into the game. Princeton responded with a 12-6 run to tie the score at 30-30 going into halftime.

The loss was Princeton’s first in the new year, snapping the team’s seven-game winning streak.

“We are at the halfway point now [in league play], and it is too early to feel too good about where you are,” Princeton head coach John Thompson III said. “There is a lot of basketball to be played.”

Friday night against Penn, two Gamboa free throws put Yale up 81-78 with 22 seconds remaining. After a timeout, Penn brought the ball down the court, looking for the game-tying 3-pointer. But when Quaker guard Charlie Copp left his feet with a pair of Eli defenders in his face, all he found were the arms of Archibong, who intercepted an errant pass. The Quakers immediately fouled, and Archibong iced the game with two free throws.

Penn took a 75-73 lead with just under three minutes to play on an Ugonna Onyekwe layup. After one Yale free throw and an Eli defensive stop, Josh Hill ’04 converted a conventional 3-point play and Yale took the lead, 77-75. The teams traded turnovers before Archibong fed Hill again in the low post for another layup and a 79-75 Yale lead.

Penn’s Tim Begley hit a deep 3-pointer from the top of the key to pull his team within one with 26.8 seconds remaining. Quaker head coach Fran Dunphy wanted a foul called on the play, but no whistle came. Yale then closed out the Quakers at the free-throw line.

The story of the second half was Yale’s shooting from the field. Trailing 32-31 at the break, the Elis burst out of the gates in the second half thanks to 16 straight points from Draughan and Gamboa. The dynamic freshman duo slashed through Penn’s soft defense as Yale opened up a 47-40 lead in the half’s opening five minutes.

As a team, Yale shot just under 70 percent from the field in the second half, making 16 of 23 field goal attempts en route to 52 points. Gamboa had 14 points in the half — and 16 on the night — on 4-for-6 shooting. Archibong led the Elis with 17 points.

The Quakers had no answer for McHugh or Hill in the low post as the two combined for 27 points on the night. For the game, the Bulldogs shot 57 percent from the floor and outscored the Quakers 38-16 in the paint.

“We obviously didn’t guard very well,” Dunphy said. “We are just not a real good defensive team at this point.”

As for the Elis, they are playing their best basketball of the year, winners of five straight games and seven of their last eight. They return to action next week at Cornell (4-17, 1-7) Friday night and Columbia (10-12, 3-5) Saturday night. Though the Big Red and the Light Blue are out of the title race, every contest is critical in what amounts to a 14-game tournament in the Ivy League.

“We are still going to approach every game like we are playing for the championship,” Vitelli said. “Any team can come up and bite you.”

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