The Yale men’s basketball team reminded everyone why it belongs at the top of the Ivy League by sweeping its New York road trip this past weekend, remaining undefeated in conference play.
Yale (15–6, 4–0 Ivy) knocked off Columbia (10–8, 2–2) 63–59 and Cornell (10–10, 2–2) 65–57 in a series of tight games for the team’s first road sweep of the Lions and Big Red since 2003. Experience has played a large factor in helping the Elis to their best start against Ancient Eight competition since 1962.
“Javier [Duren ’15] knocked down some clutch free throws, and then we made a big stop down the stretch,” forward Justin Sears ’16 said. “So that just comes back to last year and some games earlier in the non-conference schedule. We’ve accumulated a lot of experience and have been in this situation countless times. We’re ready for whatever gets thrown at us.”
After a three-pointer from Columbia star Maodo Lo with 3:41 remaining, the Bulldogs were clinging to a one-point lead. But Yale, which was shooting just 11–21 from the free throw line at that point, would knock down six in a row from the charity stripe, including four straight from Duren, to put the Elis up three with 16 seconds left in the game.
Columbia had its opportunities, handing the ball to its junior standout Lo, who scored 17 of his 20 points in the second half and shot a blistering 6–8 from behind the arc. Sears, however, thwarted his last second efforts, blocking Lo’s three-point attempt with six seconds on the clock.
“I had a lot of defensive blips in that second half, so I knew I had to make up for it,” Sears said. “The guy was driving circles around me this game, so I just had to hunker down and make sure he didn’t get the three off, trusting my help-side defense if he went by me.”
Sears reaffirmed his candidacy for the Ivy League Player of the Year award, notching 28 points, eight rebounds, three blocks and, perhaps most notably, zero turnovers. Columbia head coach Kyle Smith noted that the team’s defensive strategy on Sears obviously did not work, especially since they were unable to keep him off the foul line.
In fact, Sears got to the line twice as much as the Lions’ entire roster, going 8–12 from the foul line as compared to 3–6 shooting by Columbia as a whole.
Yale also took care of the ball against Columbia, turning the ball over a season-low three times while forcing the Lions into 14 turnovers. The Bulldogs scored 13 points off Columbia’s miscues in comparison to the Lions, who notched only two points off turnovers.
“Kudos to Yale as far as turning the ball over only three times,” Smith said. “That’s out of character for them — they turn the ball over usually more than that. They played well, they took care of the ball.”
With the late 8 p.m. start against Columbia, the Bulldogs faced a quick turnaround with a 6 p.m. tip off against Cornell, getting into Ithaca at 4 a.m. The Big Red was coming off a win against Brown and sought to take down Yale for a share of the Ivy League lead.
But the Elis did not relinquish their grasp atop the standings. Tired legs did not seem to be a problem, as the Elis jumped out to a quick seven-point lead just five minutes into the game.
“We were tough and gritty and handled the tough situation really well,” head coach James Jones said. “Armani [Cotton ’15] was all over the glass, and Matt [Townsend ’15] was tough as nails defensively and did a nice job offensively.”
The Bulldogs limited the Big Red to 33.3 percent shooting from the field and showcased a strong defensive effort, especially against the Ivy League’s leading scorer, forward Shonn Miller, who shot an inefficient 6–20. Over a five-minute stretch late in the second half, the Elis were able to extend their lead to a dozen points on a 12–4 run, and Cornell was unable to get closer than eight the rest of the way.
Around the rim, Yale stepped up its game. Following their game in the Big Apple, where Columbia outrebounded the Elis 33–28, Jones said that the team allowed the Lions to get too many offensive rebounds. He added that he had faith that the Bulldogs would be better on Saturday night, and Yale outhustled Cornell to grab 46 rebounds to the Big Red’s 31.
Sears finished Saturday’s game with 19 points and just two turnovers. In his last three games, Sears has 74 points and only those two giveaways.
While the Bulldogs are doing well thus far, they also got off to a strong start last season, going 8–1 in league play before dropping four of their last five games.
“We were kind of blinded by the spotlight,” Sears said. “That second go-around when we had to do the second matchups with other teams, we were a little caught off guard that we were going to get everyone’s best shots. Right now, we’re ready for everyone’s best shots since the target’s on our backs this year.”
The Bulldogs will need to remain focused on each game individually as next weekend provides a series of tough matchups. Dartmouth and Harvard visit New Haven next weekend for a pair of 7 p.m. games.