The Yale men’s basketball team made the plays it needed to make down the stretch, stringing together key baskets and defensive stops to propel the Bulldogs to a sweep of Princeton and Penn last weekend.
Yale (21–8, 10–2 Ivy) trailed by three at halftime against both Princeton (13–14, 6–5) and Penn (7–18, 2–9), but the experienced Bulldogs, in their final home weekend of the regular season, came alive in the second half to rally and post wins against two young teams. The victories, coupled with a Harvard loss to Cornell on Friday, set the stage for a crucial Ivy showdown between the Crimson and the Bulldogs this Friday in Cambridge.
“This is a good veteran team,” head coach James Jones said following the team’s 55–50 win against Penn on Saturday night. “[Penn is] playing freshmen and sophomores a lot … The fact that we have these two guys [guard Jack Montague ’16 and guard Javier Duren ’15] that have been through some wars, it helps us down the stretch to have a sense of calmness.”
Jones shared the same sentiment the night before, noting that the team was fortunate to get the 81–60 win against “a very good Princeton team” that has a bright future ahead of it.
The Tigers gave the Elis problems early on, allowing just four different Bulldogs to score in the first half. As has been the case often this season, Duren and forward Justin Sears ’16 carried Yale offensively, notching 21 of the team’s 32 points before intermission, though the Tigers led 35–32.
The Bulldogs also received a boost from guard Khaliq Ghani ’16, who scored six points in the first half en route to a career-high 11 points on the night.
“[Ghani] was huge for us tonight,” Jones said. “We’ve been searching for a bench wing to come and help us, and Khaliq is a kid that we’ve been trying to work along here. He has great ability, really athletic, can shoot the basketball, and the games that he’s played prior, he’s just seemed a little hesitant. So we talked with him about being aggressive and … for the most part he was tremendous and a big help for our team.”
After coming out of the locker room, Princeton extended its lead to eight. But the Bulldogs remained aggressive on offense and found their way to the free-throw line early and often in the second half. Less than seven minutes into the period, the Elis were in the bonus, and Yale took advantage of its opportunities from the charity stripe to tie the game with 12:09 remaining.
The Bulldogs ended the game on a 30–7 run, keyed by a four-point play from Montague and an emphatic dunk by Sears following a steal by the Plainfield, New Jersey native.
“We locked down defensively,” Sears said. “Coach made us switch into a match-up 23 zone … That confused them, and we started getting stops. We were in the bonus so we just attacked the rim … Princeton got a little loose defensively since they didn’t want to get into foul trouble.”
Sears put all his talents on display against the Tigers, notching an efficient 28 points on 11–15 shooting and 12 rebounds in addition to three steals and two blocks. The team shot a season-high 92.9 percent from the free-throw line and 53.2 percent from the floor to put Princeton away.
On Saturday night, Yale was unable to take control of the game against Penn, a team that the Bulldogs defeated by 27 points the first time around and currently sits in last place in the Ivy League following seven straight losses.
Contrary to pregame predictions, Quaker guards Antonio Woods and Tony Hicks ensured that the Elis would not run away with the game, scoring 19 combined points in the first half to give Penn a 28–25 advantage. Furthermore, turnovers plagued the Elis, who committed eight in the first half.
“Throughout the entire game, Penn had an answer for us when the score was tied,” Jones said. “Every time we had a chance to take the lead, we turned it over or [took] a bad shot. The ball goes the other way, they score, take another lead.”
Unlike the game against Princeton the night before, the Bulldogs continued to trail throughout the second half. Yale was unable to string together a run of more than six consecutive points for the first 16:37 of the second half.
In fact, with under four minutes to play in the game, the Elis trailed by four, 47–43, and had yet to take a lead in the game.
“We talked in the huddle how [with] four minutes to go, there was plenty of time to win the game,” Jones said. “Our guys believed it, and they went out there and executed.”
Yale found its shooting stroke from behind the arc, with Montague starting an 11–0 run to pull the Blue and White to within one with 3:23 to play. He added another three to put the Bulldogs up by four, 51–47, with 1:23 left on the clock.
Montague finished the night 3–4 from behind the arc, one weekend after he shot just 4–17 from long range.
“You can’t have the past in your head,” Montague said. “You just have to think that the next one is going in. That’s what I’ve been doing for these past three games even though my shot hasn’t been going in. You just have to stick to the game plan on offense, and if you have the open shot, you can’t pass it down.”
Sears, quiet throughout most of the night, sealed the victory for Yale with a key block on a Penn three-point attempt on the very next Penn possession. His three-point play with 33 seconds left gave the Elis their largest lead of the night, at seven, and ensured that the Bulldogs would send the class of 2015 off on a high note on Senior Night.
Duren finished the game with a game-high 19 points, including 9–10 shooting from the free-throw line. The Bulldogs finished with their worst assist-to-turnover ratio since January at 0.692.
The victory over Penn marked Yale’s 21st of the season, its most since the 2001–02 campaign, in which the Bulldogs finished 21–11 and tied for the Ivy League championship. It is the sixth time in school history that Yale has totaled 20 wins or more.
Yale will have a chance to improve on its record — and potentially clinch an NCAA Tournament bid for the first time in over half a century — next weekend, when the Bulldogs travel to Cambridge and Hanover to take on Harvard and Dartmouth in the final weekend of the regular season.