In the fine print of ESPN’s score ticker, the final score “Yale 67 Rutgers 65” scrolled across millions of screens nationwide on Thursday March 14. Easily missed amongst the NCAA tournament upsets like “Wyoming 73 Gonzaga 66” or “UNC-Wilmington 93 Southern Cal 89”, that one final brought a hint of March Madness to Yale for the first time ever.
In the first round of the National Invitation Tournament, the Bulldogs (21-10) defeated Rutgers for their first postseason win in 107 years of Yale basketball. Sandwiching that thrilling win were two disappointing defeats, a 77-58 loss to Pennsylvania in a playoff for an NCAA tournament berth and an 80-61 loss to Tennessee Tech in the second round of the NIT. In all, the three games added up to the most interesting and exciting March in Yale basketball history.
“Now that I think about the season, it was a wonderful, magnificent season,” said Yale captain Ime Archibong ’03 after the season-ending loss to Tennessee Tech.
Despite the loss, Yale head coach James Jones, Athletics Director Tom Beckett and former Yale standout and NBA player Chris Dudley ’87 gave the Yale team well-deserved congratulations on an historic season.
Without a senior on his roster, Jones guided Yale to its first 20 win season since 1948-49, its first Ivy League championship since 1962-63 and its first berth in the NIT. All of this just three years after Jones took over a program that was coming off a 4-22 season.
“I’ll start to reflect on the season now,” Jones said after the loss to Tennessee Tech ended Yale’s run. “This experience is just going to help us.”
The Yale season ended on a bitter note, falling to the Golden Eagles of Tennessee Tech (27-7) in a game at the New Haven Coliseum on Tuesday, March 19. Awarded a home game in the second round of the NIT, Yale President Richard Levin made 6,000 tickets available to the public for free. The result was a sellout of 9,847 at the Coliseum — the largest home crowd in Yale basketball history.
The crowd, though, saw the Bulldogs dominated by an athletic Tech team that controlled the game from the opening tip. The Golden Eagles, helped by 11 second-chance points, built a 26-10 lead with just under seven minutes to play in the first half. Yale got no closer than 9 points the rest of the way.
Defensively, the Tech big men blocked 10 Eli shots — one reason why Yale shot only 35.8 percent from the field in the game.
“They were real athletic. They seemed to be flying at everything,” said Yale center T.J. McHugh ’03, who made five of 10 shots en route to 12 points.
The crowd that remained at the end of the game gave the Elis an ovation as they walked off the floor in recognition of the team’s many accomplishments this season.
One of the biggest accomplishments was Yale’s upset of Rutgers in the NIT’s first round.
Heading into the Rutgers (18-13) game, the Elis were a decided underdog against a Big East team that had beaten four ranked teams en route to a 15-1 home record all season. The hostile environment of the Louis Brown Athletic Center did not faze the Bulldogs, who put four players in double figures in one of the biggest wins in the school’s history.
Trailing 44-43 with 10:46 seconds left, Edwin Draughan ’05 scored four straight points to spur a 9-0 Yale run over the next three minutes that gave the Elis a 52-44 advantage.
The Scarlet Knights went on a 6-2 run to narrow the score to 54-50 as the crowd of 5,328 rose to its feet. Chris Leanza ’03 had the answer though, drilling a baseline 3-pointer to quiet the fans and give Yale a 57-50 lead. Leanza silenced the crowd again with another trey that opened up 60-53 Yale lead with 2:11 left.
The Bulldogs made enough of their free throws down the stretch to hold off the Scarlet Knights.
“You dream about getting shots like that,” said Leanza, an Honorable Mention All-Ivy player last season. He missed the team’s first 14 games rehabilitating an off-season shoulder surgery.
“It’s gratifying and it’s not,” Leanza said after the Rutgers game. “I really wish we were in the NCAA tournament.”
Playing Penn in the final game of a two-game Ivy playoff — necessitated by a three-way tie for first place between Penn, Yale and Princeton — the Bulldogs were 40 minutes away from making their first NCAA tournament appearance in 40 years. Unfortunately, the Elis ran into a Penn team on top of its game on a night when they were not on top of theirs.
The Quakers played a tough, physical game and won on the strength of their frontcourt. A pair of first team All-Ivy selections, Penn’s forwards dominated the contest with Koko Archibong going for 21 points and 16 rebounds and Ugonna Onyekwe for 16 points and 5 rebounds.
“We didn’t get the job done tonight,” Jones said after the game. “I thought Penn played extremely tough tonight. [The officials] let the game be physical, which was good, but we didn’t take full advantage of it.”
The game was a rout from the onset, with Penn opening the contest with a 21-6 run. The Elis would never get closer than 9 points the rest of the game.
Despite failing to earn that precious NCAA tournament berth, Yale’s Josh Hill ’04 reflected on the team’s accomplishments.
“Penn is where we want to be,” Hill said. “We are trying to start our own tradition, and I think we are on the right path.”