The Yale men’s basketball team very nearly escaped this weekend with a seemingly insurmountable three-game edge in the Ivy League. Instead, the Bulldogs now find themselves tied for first after a tough loss on Saturday to Harvard.
Yale (16–7, 5–1 Ivy) throttled Dartmouth (8–12, 1–5) by a final tally of 81–66 on Friday evening to extend its all-time best start in conference play to 5–0.
Simultaneously, Harvard (15–5, 5–1) miraculously pulled out a crucial victory in overtime at Brown, after tying the game in regulation with a last-second put-back by the reigning Ivy League Player of the Year, Wesley Saunders.
Harvard’s heroics set the stage for an early-season battle for Ivy supremacy. The Crimson, the four-time defending league champions, survived a defensive struggle, edging Yale 52–50.
While the loss came to a familiar foe in front of a sold-out John J. Lee Amphitheater, the Elis stressed that the Harvard defeat does not count more than any other loss.
“That’s what we’ve tried to preach: have our eyes on the prize,” guard Javier Duren ’15 said. “[The prize is] not the NCAA tournament; it’s always the next game.”
Yale opened the weekend with a solid, top-to-bottom effort against the Big Green that saw seven Elis contribute six or more points, including a career-high 19-point effort from guard Jack Montague ’16.
Montague, the league’s leading three-point shooter, knocked down five of six attempts from beyond the arc. For a Yale team that has traditionally been stronger in the post than on the perimeter, having led the Ancient Eight in rebounding margin each of the last three seasons, the team’s shooting from deep was a welcome sight.
In addition to Montague, four other Bulldogs banged home two three-pointers each to buoy Yale’s outside attack. Two of those three-pointers came as part of a 15–1 run to close the first half, breaking what was a 20–20 tie wide open and vaulting the Elis to victory.
Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, nearly their entire prowess from the perimeter vanished Saturday evening, especially in the first half.
With a chance to build a two-game advantage over Harvard and the entire Ivy League, Yale put on its worst shooting half in recent history. The Elis scored 11 points in the first 20 minutes, nine fewer than they managed against Florida in a blowout loss in December, due to a 3–22 mark from the field.
To Yale’s credit, the Crimson did enter play as the league’s best scoring defense. Moreover, despite shooting 13.6 percent from the floor, including 0–6 shooting from the three-point arc, Yale only trailed by five at the half.
Sears pointed to the crowd as a possible explanation for the poor shooting.
“I think that the crowd played a factor, just a few nerves for some guys,” Sears said. “Some routine shots that we usually make we weren’t hitting in the first half, which caused a slow start.”
The nerves appeared to have been resolved following the halftime intermission, as the Elis came out on fire in the second half. Yale hit on each of its first four attempts from the field, including two three-pointers, en route to scoring 13 points in the first 4:19 of the second half, surpassing its first half output.
For the first 16 minutes and 50 seconds of the second half, Harvard led by a margin varying between one and seven points. In fact, the Crimson nearly led wire-to-wire, as Yale’s only lead of the game was 2–0 for the first few minutes of action. An eventual 7–0 Harvard run keyed by Saunders and guard Siyani Chambers saw the lead swell to double digits with 1:38 remaining.
Yale managed to pour in 12 points in the final 1:07, including a Duren three-pointer that turned out to be bittersweet at best. Duren reached the 1,000-point mark with the triple, though the Bulldogs’ frenetic comeback attempt ultimately came up short.
“At this point, [the 1,000 points] don’t really matter much because I’ll take a win, especially over Harvard, over anything that I can accomplish personally,” Duren said.
Though the Elis shot significantly better in the second half, more fundamental concerns frustrated head coach James Jones, notably the team’s offensive rebounding and inability to trust the team offense.
Yale had 37 missed field goals but only eight offensive rebounds — the Bulldogs have averaged 12 offensive board per game this season — whereas the Crimson snatched 10 offensive rebounds on just 30 missed field goals.
“We didn’t do a good job of offensive rebounding. We missed a ton of shots and we didn’t get many of them back,” Jones said. “On offense, we just did not do what we planned to dow — we didn’t trust our stuff enough and we were trying to hit a home run on every play as opposed to moving the ball side-to-side.”
From a statistical perspective, one only has to look at Sears’ production Saturday evening to see how anomalous the evening’s performance was for Yale’s Ivy-best offense.
Sears, who entered the night averaging 21 points and 13.6 free throw attempts per game in conference play, finished with nine points and just six free throw attempts.
His ability to draw fouls and get to the line has been crucial for the Bulldogs all season. In games in which Sears has attempted eight or more free throws, the Bulldogs are 9–1. But in games in which Sears has attempted seven or fewer foul shots, the Elis are just 6–5, excluding a loss against NJIT in which Sears only played six minutes.
Despite the loss, Sears remained adamant following the game to keep things in perspective.
“We’re still in first place and we control our destiny,” Sears said. “A lot of guys on the team felt that was the poorest game we played all season, outside of the Florida game, and we felt that was one of Harvard’s better games since they’re not a strong offensive team.”
This marks the second consecutive season in which Yale and Harvard are tied atop the Ancient Eight standings at 5–1 through six games. Last year, it was Yale who went on the road and spoiled Harvard’s undefeated start to conference play.