Emblazoned on the backs of the “Dawg Pound” T-shirt were the words “It’s March — it’s Ivy madness — it’s our turn to dance!”
The shirts, a gift to the Eli faithful who filled the Palestra stands minutes before an Ivy League playoff game against Princeton, said it all. After years of Ivy League mediocrity — or worse — the Bulldogs’ most successful season in 40 years translated into their first postseason victory in the program’s 107-year history.
The Bulldogs’ special season had its beginnings not in New Haven, but in South Carolina at the Poinsettia Holiday Classic. An 87-74 upset victory over the Penn State Nittany Lions Nov. 18 was followed little over a month later by a stunning 90-82 defeat in the Poinsettia Holiday Classic Dec. 28 at the hands of Macalester, a Division III opponent.
Luckily for the Bulldogs, the trip to South Carolina ended on a positive note with the Elis’ 68-65 win over Clemson Dec. 29 in the final non-Ivy League game of the Bulldogs’ schedule.
“The trip to South Carolina provided both a wake-up call and an indication of our team’s potential when we lost to a Division III team and then beat Clemson,” said guard Scott Gaffield ’04.
After opening Ivy League play with home wins against Columbia and Cornell and a loss to Brown, Yale hit the road for their first Ivy League game outside New Haven, a rematch with Brown at Providence that ended with an 80-77 Bulldog victory Jan. 26.
“I believe the turning point of our Ivy League season was our back-to-back weekends against Brown,” said Ime Archibong ’03, the team’s captain. “That is when I knew we could be special, and I think other guys started to believe so too.”
When the Bulldogs returned to New Haven for the second half of the season and their first home games against powerhouses Penn and Princeton Feb. 8-9, the John J. Lee Amphitheater filled to capacity both nights. There was a new level of excitement surrounding Bulldog basketball in the Elm City.
The Elis did not disappoint their newfound audience, powering past Penn in the final three minutes to rebound from a 75-73 deficit, with Archibong contributing a steal and two late free throws to ensure the 83-78 win.
The next night against Princeton, a 3-pointer by Ivy League Rookie of the Year Alex Gamboa ’05 broke a 43-42 deadlock with eight minutes remaining and propelled the Bulldogs to a 60-50 victory.
The weekend sweep meant first place with a 7-1 Ivy League record, the Bulldogs’ best Ancient Eight beginning since 1962. It also meant that the Elis would control their own destiny in the final three weekends.
At 9-1 after defeating Cornell and Columbia on the road, the team had become a national darling, with mentions from Dick Vitale, ESPN’s Bracketology web page, and Sports Illustrated. The season was evolving into a historic one for Yale fans.
But a pair of road losses briefly derailed the honeymoon trip. At 9-1, Yale traveled to Penn and Princeton and dropped both games 76-60 and 77-58, respectively.
With wins against Harvard and Dartmouth to close out the season, Yale players and fans awaited the outcome of the Penn-Princeton game Mar. 4 that would decide the Ivy League breakdown. Penn routed the Tigers 64-48, and March Ivy Madness had officially begun. Without its own postseason tournament, the Ivy League now found itself in the midst of a makeshift one, as a three-way playoff determined the recipient of the automatic tournament berth.
Yale and Princeton squared off at Penn for the right to face the Quakers, who earned a bye by virtue of their 3-1 record against the other two teams.
The Bulldogs jumped out to a 37-25 lead by halftime, and the Tigers never recovered. McHugh recorded 21 points, with Draughan adding 16 of his 20 in the second half en route to a 76-60 win.
It was more than individual talent that put the Bulldogs in position for an NCAA berth.
“We are all very close friends and playing with your friends really makes it easier,” Gaffield said. “You have a better sense of where they are going to be and how they like to play.”
The Bulldogs then went on to face Penn at Lafayette College to determine who would enter the NCAA tournament, but this time it was the Bulldogs who were overpowered. Yale never led in the game, and Penn’s dominating inside presence proved too much for the Elis, who fell 77-58.
The season was not over, however, as the Bulldogs earned an at-large NIT berth and traveled to New Jersey to face Rutgers in the opening round Mar. 14.
Yale grabbed a sizable lead with just under two minutes to play, but a late run by the Scarlet Knights brought them within two. Draughan intercepted Rutgers’ last-second inbound pass to seal Yale’s first postseason victory ever.
Unfortunately for the Elis and their fans, Tennessee Tech ended Yale’s historic run with an 80-61 victory Mar. 19. The loss, however, could not diminish the season’s importance.
“It felt great,” said Jones, who in three years has reversed the fortunes of the 4-22 team he inherited in 1999. “The kids worked real hard and to go and accomplish that in our third year — it makes you feel really good.”
As the T-shirts claimed, March madness really did hit the Yale campus this past winter, and with this year’s squad returning next year, the party might move to the big dance — the NCAA tournament.