A collection of thoughts amassed Monday night from the UConn alumni section at Gampel Pavilion.
• First things first — what transpired in the first half two nights ago was sublimely surreal and the most exciting and important 20 minutes for a Yale sports team in recent memory. The UConn fans surrounding me went from condescension (“Sure, you can cheer — you might as well enjoy it while it lasts.”) to befuddlement (“Alright, stop joking guys. Seriously. Get the lead out and start playing like the best team in the country. Please?”) to frustration as my fellow outcast and I provided a boisterous two-man rendition of “Bulldog” during the final TV timeout of the first half. Sure the fans laughed when I self-deprecatingly mocked the lack of success of recent UConn legends at the NBA level — “Where’s Khalid El-Amin now? Kevin Ollie, he’s been a real world-beater, huh?” — and inquired about the whereabouts of mid-90s point guard Doron Sheffer, the Jewish Pepe Sanchez But by the end of the first half, those quips fell on hardened ears. While losing my audience was personally saddening, UConn had done the unthinkable and managed to lose its own ridiculously partisan home audience (more on this later) in the opening 20 minutes.
• The UConn Athletic Department did itself a disservice by not accommodating more Yale students. There were at least 1,000 empty seats in the stadium, and the eager Yale student section could easily have been expanded. The taunting between the students, lively as it was, would have been a tad bit less one-sided with a larger Yale contingent in attendance. Yes, oh Husky students, you were right when you cheered that you couldn’t hear us. That’s because you guys had more male cheerleaders than we had fans — and I think we had something like 100 fans. Sweet cheer guys, very original. And you probably don’t want to get us started with the “Harvard rejects” cheer you guys whipped out. Yes, you had us sitting in Siberia, but we were still closer to the floor than UConn is to joining the Ivy League. With at least a 15 to 1 advantage in student attendance, the Husky fans were undoubtedly louder, albeit far less creative. UConn could have and should have given Yale more tickets to distribute to students. Obviously they have the right to create a hostile environment, but in a stadium with over 10,000 seats, a couple more could have been allotted to Yale, perhaps to create some sort of in-state tension.
• The All-American duo of juniors Ben Gordon and Emeka Okafor quite possibly comprise the best inside-outside combination in the country. But Monday, Yale’s matchups for the two stars more than held their own. Edwin Draughan ’05 outscored his counterpart in the backcourt and looked primed to get over the hump and become one of the top players in the Ivy League. Even when he was not running the offense, he was able to create not only for himself (7-11 from the field) but for his teammates as well with his dribble penetration. Meanwhile, making his Yale debut against the pre-eminent big man in the country, Dominick Martin ’05 gave Okafor all he could handle. Not intimidated by Okafor’s shot-blocking reputation, Martin continuously took it right at the UConn big man, baffling him with his sweeping hook shots in the lane and earning the praise of the potential Naismith Award winner: “He had that old-school hook. I like that — I have to practice that. He brought that out and kept it far away so I couldn’t really reach out and get it.” If Yale can establish Draughan and Martin as a legitimate inside-outside threat, the Elis will be tough to contain in the Ivy League.
• Next time you see a Yale team lead ESPN SportsCenter, let me know.
• Yale coach James Jones, coaching in the biggest game of his career, showed he was capable of hanging with the best minds in the game. In the first half, the Bulldogs’ game plan was executed like clockwork. Yale’s switch to a zone defense confounded UConn and prevented the Huskies from getting into a rhythm. On offense, Yale worked the clock and limited turnovers (three in the first frame), preventing UConn from establishing a running game that would exploit its athletic advantage. Jones established not only that he can match x’s and o’s with a coach who has won a national championship but also that he can convince his team that they can win. While Jones acquiring a national reputation might not be in Yale’s best interests in the long run, his work this year could propel it past where it went two years ago.
• Jones also watched as his team gradually earned respect from the officiating crew. UConn didn’t pick up its first foul of the game until there was only 5:01 remaining in the first half, at which point the grace period was over. With Yale still holding a one-point edge, the referees decided it was time to call a real ballgame, and they stopped giving the team with all the hype the benefit of the doubt with each whistle. You have to earn respect from the officials to get your way. Shockingly, it was Yale that received increasingly preferential treatment as the game progressed. This change of events left UConn coach Jim Calhoun whining constantly to his assistants and, during timeouts, to the referees. Yale’s play had UConn’s bench looking for excuses — not what was supposed to happen in a game with a 23-point spread.
• Alright, we’ve got $11 billion. Can we please splurge and get a new mascot costume? That blue monstrosity was embarrassing. It made the Stanford tree look good.
• Most importantly, this was a watershed moment for the Yale basketball program. The appearance on national television would have given the program invaluable exposure to potential recruits even in the case of a blowout, but the competitive nature of the game validated Yale as a program that has arrived. Penn and Princeton have had their national face time. Now Yale has received it, and it has shown that it deserves to be there. This game should bode well for success this season. At any time when the team is struggling, it can look back to the first 20 minutes against Connecticut — and for that matter stretches in the second half when it did not let the Huskies turn the game into a rout — and realize it has the goods to compete with anyone. In a landmark game, Yale turned in a landmark performance. And while moral victories ring hollow — and I’m sure no one on the team was satisfied merely with a competitive loss — the Elis have shown that they are ready to move past last year’s disappointing campaign and claim their place as a bona fide program.
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