The Bulldogs made senior Casey Hughes’s ’07 birthday a night to remember last Friday, but they followed up the celebration with nothing but disappointment the following day, in one of the biggest upsets in recent history of Yale basketball.
The team has been able to overcome a string of sluggish first halves during their recent 8-1 run — including Friday’s victory over Cornell — but the slow starts finally caught up with the Elis on Saturday night when they played Columbia.
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Against the Big Red, the Bulldogs shot 34.6 percent from the field in the first 20 minutes before getting their offense going in the second half and hitting 16 of their 29 shots. Despite their cold shooting before the break, the Elis managed to stay in the game due to a combination of great defense and Cornell’s own offensive ineptitude.
“If we had shot the ball like we normally do, we probably would have had a 10-point lead at halftime,” head coach James Jones said.
The Big Red finished the game shooting 38.8 percent and were plagued by mental mistakes and careless turnovers. The Bulldogs employed an aggressive man-to-man defense for most of the game and consistently tried to deny penetration by keeping a body in the lane. Matt Kyle ’08 characterized Yale’s first-half performance as a whole as he made up for a subpar offensive outing with exceptional defense. Kyle drew two huge charges before the end of the first half that prevented the Big Red from tying the game.
In the second half, the Elis’ offense finally showed up. Hughes celebrated his 22nd birthday by matching Eric Flato ’08 with a game-high 18 points. Hughes, who missed two free throws in the final seconds of a 60-59 loss to Cornell earlier in the month, said he felt redeemed after carrying the Bulldogs to victory.
Jones said he tried to comfort Hughes after the loss in Ithaca to no avail.
“I couldn’t even have a conversation with him after the Cornell game,” he said.
In their earlier loss to the Big Red, the Elis followed a similar pattern of not coming out of the gate quick enough. The Bulldogs were 11-for-31 in the first half but improved to 12-for-23 in the second. Unfortunately, the team couldn’t dig itself out of a seven-point hole.
Going into the game against Columbia, the Elis emphasized the importance of a short-term focus and the dangers of overconfidence.
“I think losing [early in the year] was great for our team,” Flato said. “We never get too high on ourselves.”
The Bulldogs had few reasons to be high on themselves after Saturday night’s debacle. They were nine for 24 from the field in the first period and could not find an answer for forward John Baumann. The Lions’ star forward finished the half with 16 points. In the second half, the Bulldogs predictably came to life. The team shot 52.2 percent from the field and hit four of six three-pointers. But with the Lions picking apart the Eli defense, the uptick in shooting accuracy did nothing to change the game.
Although the Bulldogs limited Baumann to four points in the second half, center Ben Nwachukwu could not be stopped. Nwachukwu scored all 14 of his points in the last period on seven for seven shooting. His performance was emblematic of a problem that the Elis have grappled with all year — stopping the player with the hot hand. In their first loss of the season, the Bulldogs allowed Brown guard Mark McAndrew to drop 27 points in the second half. In the Elis’ second loss, Cornell center Andrew Naeve scored 11 of his 15 points in the final period. In their third defeat, the Bulldogs gave up 14 points in one half to a player averaging 8.5 points for the season.
Because Penn edged out Dartmouth 80-78 last Saturday, the Elis need to sweep both Penn and Princeton on the road and hope that either Brown or Princeton manages to upset the top-ranked Quakers. If the stars align, the Bulldogs may still have an outside shot at the Ivy League title.