March Madness is epitomized by a matchup between two Ivy League juggernauts duking it out for their conference crown. That matchup comes to life on Friday, as Yale takes on Harvard in perhaps the program’s biggest game in 13 years, before the Bulldogs travel to New Hampshire to take on Dartmouth in their regular season finale.
Heading into the final weekend of the Ivy League basketball season, Yale (21–8, 10–2 Ivy) and Harvard (20–6, 10–2) sit atop the standings with matching 10–2 conference records. On Friday night, these Ancient Eight frontrunners will square off in front of a sold-out crowd at Lavietes Pavilion in Cambridge, and a win would put Yale in prime position for its first NCAA Tournament bid since 1962.
“The opportunity to play in the NCAA Tournament for Yale would be a dream come true,” forward Sam Downey ’17 said. “But right now, all that matters is just focusing on our game plan and playing our best in these next two games.”
Yale travels to Harvard fresh off winning back-to-back home games against Princeton and Penn. In both contests, the Elis trailed by three at halftime before being carried by forward Justin Sears ’16 in the second half. Over the weekend, Sears collected nine offensive rebounds, providing his teammates vital opportunities for second-chance points. For his efforts, the junior from Plainfield, New Jersey earned Ivy Player of the Week honors, his fifth such award this season and 10th of his career.
The Crimson, on the other hand, struggled in a loss at Cornell last Friday, which caused them to drop into a first-place tie with the Bulldogs. Harvard shot 25.4 percent from the floor in that contest, as Siyani Chambers and Wesley Saunders, the team’s leading scorers, were held to 9–31 shooting. But on Saturday, Harvard bounced back by shooting a scorching 58.7 percent in an 80–70 win again Columbia.
Everyone who follows the Ivy League knows what is at stake tonight: the coveted conference title and a spot in the NCAA Tournament. Although this is the penultimate game for both teams — the Bulldogs travel to Dartmouth on Saturday, while the Crimson hosts Brown — it has the feeling of a championship game.
Despite the hoopla surrounding the game — some Harvard students camped out to receive tickets; ESPN has plans to use live coverage during SportsCenter and Harvard has had to bring in extra bleachers — the players remain calm.
“Right now, I’m treating [Harvard] as another game,” Sears said. “The guys on the team are treating it like another game and just taking it one day at a time in practice. And when game day comes, we’ll play as hard as we can.”
Guard Khaliq Ghani ’16 echoed Sears, saying that the Bulldogs prepared like they do every week.
With game day here, the Bulldogs will need to fine-tune their offense to have a chance at wresting the title from the four-time defending champions. On Feb. 7, Harvard came to New Haven to face a Yale squad that was undefeated in conference play and left with an ugly 52–50 win. In that contest, the Elis’ offense limped to just 11 first-half points and a 31.5 shooting percentage for the game. Yale might be happier taking its talents on the road, where it has posted a 5–0 record in conference games.
In order for the blue and white to continue their undefeated ways away from John J. Lee Amphitheater and defeat the Crimson, point guard Javier Duren ’15 will need to continue attacking the basket and drawing fouls. In the past two games, he has converted 16 of his 17 attempts from the charity stripe, an impressive 94.1 percent clip. In that loss to Harvard a month ago, Duren failed to register a single free-throw attempt. Additionally, Sears will need to take more than the seven shots he attempted against the Crimson last month.
“The key to beating Harvard is playing within our system by sharing the basketball and executing our offense while playing team defense,” Downey said. “We really just have to play Yale basketball and we’ll be in good shape.”
For Harvard, guard Siyani Chambers looks to avoid repeating his poor performance from last weekend, during which time he went 6–18 from the floor. As the loss against Cornell emphasized, Saunders cannot be the only scoring option if the team expects to come out on top. Saunders, who is tied with Sears for second in conference scoring with 16.8 points per game, can be stifled by the defensive prowess of guard Armani Cotton ’15. If the Yale defense can follow Cornell’s example and step up and limit the efficiency of Saunders and his supporting cast, the Bulldogs can be on the other end of a gritty game this time around.
With all the hype surrounding Friday’s marquee matchup, it is easy for the Bulldogs to forget that they will also be playing on Saturday. Dartmouth (12–14, 5–7) has quietly won three straight games to jump into a three-way tie for fourth place, including two wins last weekend over the New York Ivies, a sweep that Harvard failed to pull off.
The Big Green is led by guard Alex Mitola, who averages 12.9 points per game, and forward Gabas Maldunas, who pairs his 11.3 points per contest with his team-best 6.9 rebounds per game. In addition, Dartmouth’s pressure defense has been perhaps its best asset this year, as the Big Green is first in the Ivy League in steals per game and third in the conference in turnover margin.
“As a team, we definitely will not overlook Dartmouth,” Downey said. “They’re a very good team with talented, experienced players who beat us in our last Ivy League game last year, and we’ll definitely keep that in mind.”
Friday’s game tips off at 8 p.m. Saturday’s contest starts at 7 p.m.