While the final home games of student-athletes’ careers often inspire reflection and pride in what has been accomplished in years past, the seniors on the Yale men’s basketball team will focus more on what has yet to be achieved as they face Princeton and Penn this weekend in pursuit of an Ivy championship.
“It’s special to be playing our last games in [John J. Lee Amphitheater], but more importantly we have our eyes focused on sweeping the last two weekends and winning the Ivy League,” said forward Matt Townsend ’15, the first Ivy League player to be named Academic All-American of the Year in men’s basketball. “Any of these teams could play spoiler, so we know we have to play the full 40 minutes with all-out intensity.”
Only four conference games remain until the end of the regular season, and the Bulldogs remain within striking distance of their first Ivy League championship in over a decade.
Yale (19–8, 8–2 Ivy) sits one game behind first-place Harvard due to a loss in New Haven last Saturday against Columbia. Tonight’s game against Princeton (12–13, 5–4) marks the first league matchup of the season in which Yale will not enter with at least a share of first place in the conference.
“The main focus this week is to win,” guard Javier Duren ’15 said. “I think we have a better understanding of how teams are going to come at us, especially when we’ve already beaten them.”
Trailing by a game and with four left to play — including a March 6 showdown against the Crimson in Cambridge — Yale’s margin of error has effectively vanished. Wins against Princeton and against Penn (7–16, 2–7) are critical for the Elis to maintain control over their destiny heading into the final weekend of regular season play.
While Yale could still earn at least a share of the conference title with a loss this weekend, the Bulldogs would then have to rely on a slip-up by the four-time defending champions from Cambridge, something that Yale players want to avoid.
“We’re in control of our own destiny at this point. If we take care of business in our last four games, we don’t have to rely on the luck of how other teams’ games go,” Townsend said. “So we’ll focus on just Princeton and Penn for now, and not think about Harvard and Dartmouth until Monday.”
Yale’s weekend of must-win contests begins against a Princeton squad that fell to Yale 81–73 in New Jersey just two weekends ago. But the Tigers have posted an impressive conference resume consisting of a 12-point victory over Columbia in addition to not having lost a single Ivy contest by more than eight points.
Princeton lacks a star player on the level of Columbia’s Maodo Lo, who scored a game-high 18 in Columbia’s victory over Yale, but the Tigers have impressive balance at the top of their roster. Four Tigers average more than nine points per game, and four Tigers have knocked down at least 37 three-pointers this year, all at a clip of 34.8 percent or better.
Such perimeter shooting would be a welcome sight for the Elis, as they shot just 23.8 percent from beyond the arc as a team last weekend.
On Saturday, Yale will turn its attention to the Quakers, who have lost at least seven conference games in five of their six seasons under head coach Jerome Allen. The Quakers are mired in a five-game losing streak, losing those contests by an average margin of 19.6 points, including a 27-point throttling at the hands of the Elis.
Nevertheless, this Ivy season in particular has demonstrated that no game can be taken for granted, as evidenced by 3–7 Dartmouth having dealt 9–1 Harvard its only loss this season. The Bulldogs will look to their senior leadership to make sure that they are not taken down by the dangerous teams who wish to play spoiler.
“It’s just maturity,” forward Justin Sears ’16 said. “We have a lot of seniors, and they only have four games left in the regular season. So they’re going to try to enjoy each game and take them one game at a time and make the most of it. And we’ll have a big sense of urgency right now.”
History, however, is on Yale’s side, as the Elis have swept the home weekend against Princeton and Penn each of the last two seasons. The Bulldogs have won three straight contests against the Tigers in the friendly confines of John J. Lee Amphitheater and have dealt the Quakers five straight losses.
Two weeks ago, the Bulldogs swept the pair thanks to hot shooting, hitting 54.0 percent from the field against Penn and 58.3 percent against Princeton. The squads from New Jersey and Pennsylvania struggle with their perimeter defense, ranking last in the Ivy League in shooting percentages allowed from the floor and beyond the arc. This bodes well for Yale, who looks to get back on track offensively after failing to find its rhythm last weekend.
Both games this weekend tip off at 7 p.m., and Saturday’s game is the team’s Senior Night.