Yale continued its rollercoaster season during the holiday break, extending its win streak to five games before losing four consecutive contests.
“We’ve kind of had an up and down run here, winning five games before losing four,” Yale Athletic Director Tom Beckett said. “There’s been a lot of excitement and a lot of interest generated so far.”
Yale started the holiday break on a high note, beating Holy Cross 70-66 and Central Connecticut State University 71-59 en route to its first ever Phoenix Classic title. The annual tournament takes place in Hartford, Conn. at the Hartford Civic Center.
Three Yale players made the all-tournament team: T.J. McHugh ’03, Justin Simon ’04 and Alex Gamboa ’05, who was also the tournament most valuable player.
“It was just great to actually win a tournament,” Yale guard Edwin Draughan ’05 said. “Yale hasn’t won a tournament in a while, and it’s certainly the first time anyone on this team has won a tournament. The team chemistry was great during the tournament, and that was great for us going forward.”
In the tournament’s first game, Yale snapped Holy Cross’ four-game win streak. Yale went on a 14-3 run in the first half to take a 34-31 advantage to halftime. The Elis extended their lead to 13 off back-to-back Paul Vitelli ’04 three-pointers before Holy Cross mounted a 8-0 comeback run to go up by one point with 1:25 left to play. Yale took the lead for good with a layup, sealing the win by forcing a Holy Cross turnover with 30 seconds left in the game.
In the championship game, Yale led CCSU through most of the first half. But CCSU went on a 15-2 run to take a lead into halftime. Yale came out firing in the second half, hitting 15 of its first 20 shots to retake the lead. Following runs of 13-2 and 20-3, the Elis led 59-40 with 6:45 left and never looked back. In the second half, the Bulldogs shot 67 percent from the field while holding CCSU to just 10 of 32 from the floor.
“In the CCSU game, we showed some of the best defense that we have ever played, and that was a pretty great feeling coming off that game,” Draughan said.
Both CCSU and Holy Cross made it to the NCAA national tournament last season. But despite their dual victories, the Elis still saw room for improvement.
“It’s always good to come up with a victory against teams that made it to the [NCAA] tournament last year,” captain Chris Leanza ’03 said. “It gave us a little more confidence and made us feel good about our chances of making it to the tournament, but we’ve got a lot of work to do and a lot of things to take care of before that happens.”
West Coast road trip
After an 18-day hiatus, the Bulldogs went back to action on Dec. 30, at Maples Pavilion in Stanford, Calif. The West Coast road trip turned into a two-game losing skid with the Elis falling to Stanford 79-56 and nearby St. Mary’s.
Yale had a nightmarish start against Stanford, missing its first four shots and turning the ball over five times in the game’s first five minutes as the Bulldogs fell behind 15-2. Things got worse when Stanford went on a 20-4 run over the final nine minutes of the half and took a 41-18 lead to halftime.
“We just didn’t play well,” Yale head coach James Jones said. “We had a 18-day lay-off, and we were a little sluggish coming out. It was a little hard to get our feet under us in the beginning of the game.”
Early in the second half, Draughan scored 10 points to lead a 13-4 Yale charge that got the Elis to 50-33 with 16:36 remaining. But Stanford regained its composure, and Yale never got closer than 15 points the rest of the way. In the second half, Yale matched Stanford in scoring. But it was too little, too late.
“We tied their scoring in the second half,” Jones said. “If we played a better first half, we could’ve been right in there with them. [Stanford was] not at all that much better than we are. But you can’t let a loss like that get to you. Every time you lose a game, you have to pick yourself up and dust yourself off.”
Despite Yale’s poor performance in the first half, Stanford head coach Mike Montgomery was impressed with the Bulldogs.
“We came out with great defensive intensity, and that’s what sustained us,” Montgomery said. “They had not played for a long time, and you get out of pace. We got a good bounce on them early, and they had some trouble catching up. But Yale is a capable team. These guys aren’t to be taken lightly.”
Although they both had the same result, Yale’s game against St. Mary’s was the exact opposite of their game against Stanford. Against St. Mary’s, Yale took a 34-28 lead to halftime but only managed 22 points for the rest of the game. In the first 14 minutes of the second half, the Bulldogs were outscored 24-6. After shooting 54 percent from the floor in the first half, Yale was held to just 23.5 percent shooting in the second.
The one that got away
Returning east, Yale sought redemption in nearby Bridgeport, Conn., but was instead upset by a feisty Fairfield team, 59-57.
The Bulldogs were again plagued by a slow start, shooting a dismal seven for 32 in the first half and trailing 33-20 going into halftime. But in the second half, the Elis shot themselves back into the game. The Bulldogs, who made just one of seven three-point shots in the first half, hit their first three three-point attempts: two from Leanza and one from Draughan. The comeback continued with three-pointers from Matt Minoff ’04 and Vitelli. With 11:41 remaining, Yale secured its first lead of the game at 41-40 after a lay up by Scott Gaffield ’04.
But Fairfield finally woke up, retaking the lead and extending it to seven points with four minutes remaining. Yale refused to relent, going on a 7-2 run in the final three minutes before coming just two shy of forcing overtime.
“[Fairfield] was definitely a team we were hoping to beat,” Draughan said. “But we gave up too many offensive rebounds. We had a great shot at the end to tie it, but sometimes the ball just doesn’t fall for you.”
There’s no place like home
Yale’s hopes of getting back on the winning track were postponed once more when Yale dropped its home opener on Jan. 6 to the University of Rhode Island, 81-69. The charm of the John J. Lee Amphitheater finally came alive three days later when the Bulldogs arrested their four game skid in dramatic fashion, stomping Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute 100-49.
Yale jumped ahead during its home-opener, taking a 12-0 lead against Rhode Island in the opening minutes. But the Rams countered with a pair of 19-6 and 14-9 runs to close the half. The Bulldogs trailed after 4:15 remaining in the first half and never came within nine. As in many of their recent losses, the game was lost for Yale on the boards: Rhode Island outrebounded the Elis 44-31.
“Rebounding has definitely been a point of emphasis,” Leanza said. “The Rhode Island game really brought it home for us. They got back half the shots they missed. We were working hard to get the stop, but then we were getting lax, and we weren’t getting the ball back. That’s something that we have been working on, and are continuing to work on.”
Yale took the helm from the opening tipoff against RPI, never trailing and finally winning by 51 points. But en route to pummeling RPI, Bulldog fans got a rare glimpse of Yale’s new blood: freshmen Juan Wheat ’06 and Dexter Upshaw ’06.
“[The freshmen] played very well,” Leanza said. “I don’t think there was a dropoff when we brought in guys that don’t usually get a lot of minutes. They showed how much upside potential they have.”
Evaluating the past and looking forward
Despite their losses and a .500 record, the Elis are confident entering conference play against Brown University on Friday.
“I don’t think we’ll be repeating a lot of mistakes that we made in those losses,” Draughan said. “That’s why losses are sometimes more helpful than wins: they remind you of the things you need to work on.”
Against Brown, Yale will be without Gamboa and forward Josh Hill ’04. Gamboa had surgery to remove his appendix on Jan. 11 and will not return for at least another week. Meanwhile, Hill’s hernia, for which he had surgery in the offseason, has continued to bother him. His return is unknown pending a series of medical tests.