After being sidelined for most of last season, guard Raffi Mantilla ’11 returned to the court last week in front of a sold-out crowd in the men’s basketball team’s season opener against Stanford.
“I was absolutely nervous before last Friday’s game,” Mantilla said. “But being nervous shows that the game means a lot to you. [For the team] the nerves were greater, though, because of the fact that it was the first game of the year and we all had put in so much work in the preseason just waiting to get to that game.”
For Mantilla, those nerves translated into a stellar performance, earning a career-high 10 points for Yale. Captain and forward Ross Morin ’09 attributes Mantilla’s success to his shooting ability.
“When he gets his feet set, he looks like Reggie Miller out there,” Morin said.
Head coach James Jones agreed. “Raffi’s biggest asset is being able to put the ball in the hoop from the outside,” he said.
Mantilla developed his shooting ability long before he became a Bulldog. Hailing from Mundelein, Ill., Mantilla was part of a prestigious basketball program that Jones said he was well aware of as a recruiter. As a shooting guard, Mantilla is one of the shorter, leaner members on the team. He’s 6’ 3” and weighs 180 pounds.
When Mantilla arrived at Yale as a freshman, he said he quickly learned how to budget his time.
“Balancing a Yale academic schedule and a varsity sport can definitely be taxing,” Mantilla said. “But I love it because I get to play college basketball and get a unbelievable education.”
Luckily, Mantilla has the advantage of being able to learn from the experience of his older sister Julie, who was on the Yale women’s basketball team and graduated from Yale in 2007.
Midway through last season, Mantilla was injured and sidelined for the rest of the year.
“I was injured during a fairly normal play,” Mantilla said. “I was reaching for a loose ball and at the same time a teammate hit the ball directly into my thumb.”
Originally, he thought he had just jammed his thumb, which is an occupational hazard. When the pain persisted, Mantilla got an MRI and learned that he had torn the ligament at the base of his thumb completely in half.
But by the time Mantilla entered training this year, he was back in commission. “The thumb is completely healed,” he said.
Morin said that he handled his bench time as well as any injured player.
“It was difficult, especially for a freshman,” Jones said. “It’s hard to sit and watch, to go from being a star in high school to being on the bench. He got to sit back and learn without having the pressure of playing.”
For Mantilla, the injury made him appreciate being healthy.
As a player, Morin said that Mantilla is “able to stretch the defense and keep teams honest.”
Guard Porter Braswell ’11 said Mantilla’s biggest strength and contribution to the team is his ability to shoot consistently. Braswell added that Mantilla contributed a strong performance in the season opener against Stanford.
“The Stanford game I think is the biggest moment that sticks out to me in terms of his career so far,” Braswell said.
Coming back this season, Mantilla settled into his old practices. Though he said he isn’t superstitious and does not have a set pregame routine, he listens to music and does pre-visualize the game. And, in good Yale form, he studies the scouting report and makes sure that he is prepared going into every game.
“Mostly,” Mantilla said, “I just try to stay focused without becoming too tense.”
Before going onto the court last Friday, Mantilla had in mind that this was really his first chance to play in a Yale uniform, and he said it made him more determined to do well.
“While I did make mistakes,” Mantilla said, “I think that overall, I helped out our team, which is always the goal any time I’m on the floor.”