It’s hard to argue against this year’s Yale men’s basketball senior class as the most successful in school history. The foursome of guard Javier Duren ’15, guard Armani Cotton ’15, forward Matt Townsend ’15 and forward Greg Kelley ’15 won 52 games in their first three years and had already added 21 in this year’s campaign.
But just like every Yale sports team, this group could only be judged in two ways: their postseason performance and, perhaps more importantly, their success against Harvard.
Until Friday night, therefore, this group could have been deemed a failure. While the Bulldogs made a deep run in last spring’s CollegeInsider.com Tournament, they had failed to win the Ivy League and make it to the pinnacle of college basketball: the NCAA Tournament, which no Yale team has qualified for since 1962.
With regards to Harvard, the results were rough: a 1–6 overall record entering last night’s game, including home losses to the Crimson all four years.
Therefore, Friday’s contest served as a chance for the Fine Four to fix their lasting legacy — to avoid their recent tendency to struggle in big games and to take a step closer to the March Madness berth that has eluded head coach James Jones in his 16 years at the helm of the Yale basketball program.
With a win over Harvard, the Bulldogs could make school history and exact revenge on their hated rival, preventing the Crimson from a fourth consecutive Ivy championship and NCAA berth and taking a step closer to a Selection Sunday date of their own.
And they did just that.
Friday’s 62–52 victory served as a statement win. It set up a win-and-you’re-in game tonight against Dartmouth. And it validated each one of the four seniors, who made key contributions to lead the upset.
Kelley provided 21 strong minutes off the bench. Townsend had eight points and six rebounds, making his patented 18-foot jumper look like a layup. And Cotton scored 14 and was a dynamic threat with the ball all night.
But Duren stole the show. The St. Louis native scored a game-high 22 points to go with nine rebounds, three assists, and a pair of steals, making his presence known throughout and perhaps even making a case for Ivy League Player of the Year.
Duren scored seven of the Bulldogs’ first 11 points at the game’s outset, immediately quieting a rowdy home crowd in Cambridge. He kept the Elis in the game despite the foul trouble of forward Justin Sears ’16. He steadied the team, he found his touch from long range and he held Siyani Chambers to 1–8 shooting.
The game’s final few minutes, though, truly revealed the seniors’ incalculable worth to Yale. After consecutive buckets from Harvard’s Steve Moundou-Missi and a pair of free throws from Chambers cut an eight-point Yale lead to two with under four minutes remaining, Duren and Townsend took over.
Duren shook a defender with a crossover move and drained a midrange jumper to extend the lead to four, and Townsend followed it up by blocking a Moundou-Missi attempt and then knocking down a long baseline two-pointer, forcing Harvard’s Tommy Amaker to take a timeout.
Coming out of the stoppage in play, after a pair of Harvard free throws, Duren hit a contested three-pointer from the left wing – perhaps the biggest shot of the entire Yale season – to put the Bulldogs up seven with 1:28 left. The floor general then made all eight of his free throw attempts in the game’s final 1:11 to salt away the win and clinch a share of the Ivy title.
After last night’s victory, Yale players, coaches and fans lingered on the court and in the stands for over an hour, basking in the glow of finally vanquishing their toughest opponent. Now, the team must get ready for an epic clash tonight against Dartmouth.
Tonight, after just 40 more minutes on the court, Yale will be able to celebrate not just overcoming four years of struggles, but over 50 years of Ivy League inferiority. Tonight, Jones has a chance to cement his legacy as an all-time great Yale coach. Tonight, the Bulldogs can end Harvard’s reign atop the Ancient Eight and take the throne once and for all.
And for Duren, Townsend, Cotton and Kelley, tonight gives them a chance to build off the achievements of Friday night. For Duren, the Harvard game provided a chance to redeem last year’s late-season collapse, which came after he went down with an ankle injury. For Kelley, the team’s captain, it represented his greatest triumph as a leader. And for Townsend and Cotton, whose contributions often cannot be summarized from the box score, it put their versatile array of valuable talents on full display.
After two years of middling success and a junior year that ended in disappointment, this was the senior class’s final opportunity for revenge and for glory. They checked revenge off last night.
With just one more win tonight in Hanover, these four will achieve glory as well.