Yale men’s basketball coach James Jones was nervous going into his team’s opening game against the Sacred Heart Pioneers. He knew the Pioneers — picked to finish first in the Northeast Conference by the league’s head coaches — had plenty of high scorers and dominated his squad last season.
Turns out there was nothing to be worried about.
After a slow start led to a one-point halftime deficit, the Bulldogs (1-0) broke it open in the second half en route to a 82-71 victory over Sacred Heart (0-1) highlighted by a breakout performance from center Matt Kyle ’08.
Kyle — a 6-foot-11 senior — recorded his first career double-double, with career highs of 22 points and 10 rebounds, while also picking up four blocks on the defensive end.
“It felt good,” Kyle said. “My teammates looked for me. I’m surrounded by great teammates. We’re all out there trying to win. Our goal is the Ivy League championship.”
Jones was not surprised by Kyle’s impressive showing — he said he has been waiting for this type of performance for some time.
“Matt Kyle has been practicing like that for four years,” Jones said. “It was nice to see him play to his capabilities and play well.”
Captain Eric Flato ’08, who averaged 15.3 points per game last season, had an atypical day shooting the ball. The point guard missed nine of his 13 field goal attempts — including all five in the second half — but was still able to finish with 14 points in a team-high 36 minutes.
Others picked up the slack.
Forward Caleb Holmes ’08 added 15 points and five rebounds, while his twin brother, Nick, contributed with seven points and 10 rebounds.
Guard Alex Zampier ’10, who saw limited playing time last season, set a new career high with 13 points, going eight for 10 from the free-throw line.
Travis Pinick ’09 filled up the stat sheet with seven points, eight rebounds, two assists, two blocks and two steals.
After losing the second leading scorer last season — Casey Hughes ’07, who averaged 9.6 points per game — the Bulldogs will be looking for contributions from a similar variety of players all season.
“We have confidence in everyone,” Holmes said. “We can all score and share the ball. If one person is having a down game, the others can step up.”
Yale, picked to finish second in the Ivy League in the preseason Ivy League media poll, shot at a 44.4 percent clip from the field. The Bulldogs had 14 fewer attempts but still managed to convert one more field goal than the Pioneers, who shot only 35.1 percent as a team.
After coming out on a 9-3 run in the first half, Yale had trouble with Sacred Heart’s pressure defense. The Bulldogs committed 12 first-half turnovers — including on five straight possessions — and went into the intermission down 36-35.
But being down only one after struggling over the first 20 minutes was a good sign for coach Jones.
“We were a little choppy to start, [and] the guys seemed nervous,” Jones said. “But once we settled down in the second half, we got shots and we did well.”
The Bulldogs now face a brutal four-game stretch. Yale will not play in New Haven again until the team faces off against Wagner on Dec. 1.
In the meantime, the team will be on the road to battle four postseason participants from last season. The Elis travel to the Mullins Center to play UMass on Wednesday, followed by No. 21 Stanford on Nov. 20, No. 2 UCLA — a participant in the previous two Final Fours — on Nov. 23 and Holy Cross — the defending Patriot League champions — on Nov. 28.
“We really needed this win,” Kyle said. “It felt great to get this win before the upcoming stretch.”