The men’s basketball team’s 70-60 loss to No. 1 UConn on Monday was the best sporting event I’ve ever attended and featured the best crowd I’ve ever been a part of.
Coming into this season, I had tremendous expectations for the basketball team, especially after reading ESPN.com’s preview of the Bulldogs. Monday night’s performance only confirmed the legitimacy of these hopes, as the Elis and their fans witnessed a positive preview of Yale’s 2003-2004 season.
On paper, this was a game that shouldn’t have been close. UConn entered as the nation’s top-ranked team with NCAA player of the year favorite Emeka Okafor and All-American hopeful Ben Gordon. The Huskies were playing their home-opener and their fans were ready to watch the team put on a show.
Prior to the opening tip-off, things didn’t look good for the Bulldogs. After UConn’s first possession ended with a monstrous dunk by Okafor, they looked worse. However, even with a hostile crowd ready to explode at any moment, Yale was not rattled. Relying on a patient offense and zone defense, the Bulldogs took the lead at the seven-minute mark and held a shocking 31-28 halftime advantage.
Despite the barrage of early second-half Bulldog turnovers, Yale quickly settled down and kept the game close despite the fact that UConn shot 58 percent on the half.
In addition to the fact that Yale never lost its composure, the Bulldogs can look back on several very solid individual performances that bode well for the rest of the season.
Point guard Alex Gamboa ’05 returned to his Ivy Rookie of the Year form, after last year’s disappointing season in which he split minutes with Chris Leanza ’03 and missed time because of appendicitis. Monday night, Gamboa led the team with five assists and deftly handled the pressure — he only had two turnovers — applied by one of the nation’s top backcourts.
Forward Paul Vitelli ’04 also looked sharp, hitting three three-pointers, after struggling with injuries throughout much of last season. Although captain Matt Minoff ’04 never scored, he played solid defense and contributed six rebounds.
Guard Edwin Draughan ’05 looked like the legitimate scoring threat the Bulldogs need. On a team with few players who can create their own shots, Draughan is really the only guy who can generate his own offense. On Monday, he nailed pull-up jumpers and scored an impressive 14 points on 7-11 shooting.
The much-hyped Princeton transfer Dominick Martin ’05 delivered a solid performance against Okafor. Relying on an arsenal of hook shots, Martin matched Draughan’s team-leading 14 points. If those moves work against the nation’s best big man, they should devastate any center an Ivy League team can put out on the floor.
The role players also fit in well. Center Justin Simon ’04 added nine points, including a buzzer-beating tip over Okafor to end the first half. Mark Lovett ’05 and Scott Gaffield ’04 each played solid minutes and connected on three-pointers.
For me, one of the best parts of the game was the energy Yale fans brought. Positioned in the back corner of Gampel Pavilion, roughly 100 Yale students held their own against the vast UConn student body. Throughout most of the game — at least when they were winning — Connecticut students directed an onslaught of the expected taunts about homework or SAT scores against the very isolated collection of Elis. However, the Yale fans managed to turn every chant on its head to stupefy the UConn students.
At the outset of the game, the dream of all Yale fans was to hold the lead for just one possession and chant “scoreboard.” Instead, we led for the last seven minutes of the first half and for just over two minutes into the second. It was unbelievable to watch the UConn faithful stare at us in stunned silence. Hopefully, this core group of fans can bring the same enthusiasm into the Ivy League season and make the John J. Lee Amphitheater as strong a home-court advantage as it was in the 2001-2002 season. By the time road games against Penn and Princeton roll around in late February, 100 tickets shouldn’t be nearly enough.
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