The final seconds ticked off the clock of the Palestra scoreboard, and although there was still one game to go, I was more excited about Eli basketball than I had ever been in my four years at Yale.
The 100 or so Bulldog fans who made the journey from New Haven to Philadelphia stormed the Penn court after watching our Bulldogs beat Princeton 76-60 in the first-ever Ivy League Basketball playoff game.
We celebrated with the team at half-court, jumping up and down, hoisting the players into the air.
And, just as it appeared that the hoopla might dwindle, all of us turned toward the Penn fans who were on hand to watch the game. The winner of the Yale-Princeton match would play Penn two nights later. The winner would go on to the big dance, the NCAA tournament.
The Penn fans had been taunting us for 40 minutes with signs and chants. They wanted to play Princeton. But instead, in 48 hours from now they had a date with the boys in blue.
All of a sudden, with our fists in the air and our voices already close to gone, we started screaming.
“We want Penn!”
“We want Penn!”
“We want Penn!”
This was the most enthusiasm any Bulldog fans had ever expressed toward Yale basketball in over four decades. And the reason was simple.
This year’s squad was the best one on the court in over four decades.
We won the Ivy League Championship for only the third time in school history.
We won the first Ivy playoff game in Ivy League history. We were the only team to win a game in the post-season basketball tournament — Penn lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament, and Princeton lost in the first round of the NIT.
My first year at Yale, the basketball team was ranked No. 310 in the country, out of 310 Division I men’s programs. Nowhere to go. No hope in sight. Games at John J. Lee amphitheater were more of a foregone conclusion than a competitive contest.
So when we became the speed bump instead of the doormat and defeated Penn and Princeton this season, it was a thrill unlike any other I had experienced in the John J. Lee Amphitheater.
Every year, Penn and Princeton had snatched the thrill of potential from our paws, returning the Bulldog puppies to the doghouse of the Ivy League.
But not this year.
On the evening of February 8, I got to the game an hour early to make sure I got a courtside seat. Just 15 minutes later, I was fighting to stand.
The team stormed onto the court and immediately started the lay-up drills. Although I was standing in the front row, the crowd yelled so loud I could not hear the ball bounce off the floor.
Our Bulldogs led the whole game, and we rushed the court when it was all over. An 83-78 victory was a great momentum boost for the Princeton game the following night. After we beat the Tigers 60-50 Saturday to claim sole possession of the Ivy League lead, people actually started believing the Elis could make it to the NCAA tournament with an Ancient Eight title under their belts.
Some might think this season was a disappointment, since Yale surrendered their Ivy league lead the following week only to win a share of it back at the end of the year and fall short of an NCAA tournament berth.
But what those fools forget is that James Jones turned the worst team in college basketball around in just three years, that we still were co-Ivy champs, and that every player from this season will return next year.
What exactly does that mean?
We’re going all the way in 2003.
Stephen Barrows ’02 is graduating from Morse College. He is a former sports editor for the Yale Daily News.