On Nov. 18, Yale traveled to State College, Pa., and defeated Penn State 87-74, handing the Nittany Lions their first non-conference home loss in 55 games.
The Bulldogs did just about everything right in that game — they shot the ball with accuracy, spread around the scoring and were strong on the glass. As a young team, with no seniors and only three juniors, they showed worlds of potential.
And so far this season, they have been living up to it.
Just past the halfway point in the Ivy League season, the Bulldogs (15-7, 7-1 Ivy) have clinched their first winning season since 1991-92. Since that early November contest, they have added the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Clemson and Ancient Eight rivals Pennsylvania and Princeton to their list of victims.
Last year, the Bulldogs were a contender in the Ivy League title race for the first time in recent history. This year, though, the Bulldogs are 7-1, in first place, and control their own destiny as they seek Yale’s first Ivy championship in 40 years and the NCAA tournament berth that comes with it.
“We are gelling at the right time this year,” said Chris Leanza ’03. “Everybody has another year of experience. I think that has a lot to do with it.”
It definitely does. Throughout the Yale lineup are players who have stepped up their play this year.
Paul Vitelli ’04 has emerged as the Ivy League’s top rebounder with 8.1 rebounds per game. After shooting under 38 percent from the field last year, T.J. McHugh ’03 is making 61 percent of his attempts this season. Alex Gamboa ’05 and Edwin Draughan ’05 are two of the league’s best freshmen and combine to form one of its most potent backcourts. The depth results in intense practices where players feed off each other and 10 players average at least 14 minutes per game.
The Bulldogs, by virtue of this depth, have also been fortunate enough to put potentially disruptive injuries behind them. Ime Archibong ’03 was hampered by ankle injuries but returned to the floor this past weekend with the familiar spring in his step as he scored 29 points in two games. Josh Hill ’04 has battled through groin problems to become one of the best low post men off the bench in the league. And Leanza has rehabbed from shoulder surgery to give the Elis a veteran ball-handling presence.
Not all has been positive for the Bulldogs this season. Though on their current five-game winning streak their play has been inspired, the Elis have been prone to lapses in intensity.
“[The season] has been sort of a roller coaster ride. We have some really good wins and some really bad losses,” reserve guard Scott Gaffield ’04 said. “When we lose, it is almost always because we don’t come out with the intensity we need to.”
With some unexpected losses under their belt, including one to Division III Macalester, the Bulldogs have not lived up to their potential every night. But, if they can in their remaining six games, they stand a very good chance of cutting down the nets as Ivy champions in March.