Less than one week removed from suffering heartbreak in Hanover, the Yale men’s basketball team looks to earn its first March Madness berth in over 50 years as it takes on co-Ivy League champion Harvard in a winner-take-all playoff game at the Penn Palestra on Saturday.
This season’s third iteration of The Game, which will be televised on the American Sports Network and streamed online on ESPN3, has a simple formula: If you win, you are in. The Ivy League regular season champion automatically qualifies for the Big Dance. Unlike many other conferences, there is no postseason tournament to determine who gets the Ivy’s NCAA automatic bid.
If Yale (22–9, 11–3 Ivy) wins, it would make its first visit to the NCAA Tournament since 1962.
“It’d be huge,” forward and Ivy League Player of the Year Justin Sears ’16 said. “When everyone commits to play basketball for [head] coach [James] Jones, our goal is to get an Ivy League championship. We did that this season. Our next goal was to get to the NCAA Tournament. We haven’t done that in so long. At the end of the day, everyone wants to play basketball in March.”
READ MORE: How can Yale win the game?
For the last four years, the Harvard Crimson (21–7, 11–3) has represented the Ivy League. But this season, thanks to strong all-around performances from Sears and first-team All-Ivy guard Javier Duren ’15, along with sharp-shooting by both three-point ace Jack Montague ’16 and forward Matt Townsend ’15, Yale is on the cusp of making history.
This season has already seen the Bulldogs defeat defending national champions UConn on a late three-pointer and win a share of the Ivy League title for the first time since 2002.
“Everything we set out to accomplish before the season we still have in front of us,” Duren said. “We’ve already accomplished one goal; now it’s time to get the other.”
Yale had a chance to win the title outright last weekend, but it could not put Dartmouth away despite leading for nearly the entire game. Poor free-throw shooting from the Elis — Yale shot just 9–17 from the charity stripe — let the Big Green back into the game, and a last-second alley-oop lay-in snatched victory from the Bulldogs’ grasp.
Saturday’s loss, combined with Harvard’s victory over Brown, gave the Crimson one last shot at yet another tournament appearance.
As painful as the loss was, however, the Elis say that they have learned from their mistakes.
“We just [have] to play a full game,” Sears said. “[Against Dartmouth], we played 35 minutes … and let it get away from us.”
The day before the loss to Dartmouth, Yale demolished Harvard in Boston, winning 62–52 in a game that highlighted the team’s defensive strength.
Similar to the first Harvard-Yale matchup, the first half was a low-scoring affair, yet nearly flawless shooting from Townsend, Duren and guard Armani Cotton ’15 in the second half helped the Bulldogs earn and keep their lead.
The team shot over 42 percent from the field and, more impressively, almost 44 percent from beyond the arc. In that game, Sears made his first two three-point shots of the season.
But given the history of the rivalry, and the magnitude of the game, victory on Saturday will not come so easily.
“What makes this game difficult is that we just played them last week, so the teams are really familiar with each other and how they play,” said Jones, who was recently named Ivy League Coach of the Year. “It’ll be a defensive battle.”
Neither team plays an up-tempo style, with both averaging fewer than 65 possessions per game, ranking them 292nd and 304th out of 351 Division I teams. Given that, each opportunity with the ball will be vital.
Townsend agreed, pinpointing breaking down Harvard’s defense as a key factor for winning the game.
“Honestly, I think it’s going to come down to teamwork and moving the basketball,” Townsend said. “We need to have all cylinders firing and we’re best at that when the ball’s really moving side to side and touching each player’s hand.”
Rebounding will also be vital to Yale’s hopes for victory. In Friday’s win over the Crimson, the Bulldogs won the rebounding margin 34–31, while they were outrebounded by 10 in the February loss to Harvard in New Haven.
Duren said that the team prides itself on its ability to rebound the basketball and get stops on defense, and that the team succeeds when it can control the glass.
With these two teams meeting for the third time this season, every little advantage can have a huge impact on the game. Only eight days after their latest showdown, neither Harvard nor Yale will face any surprises when they step onto the court on Saturday.
“Down the stretch in the Ivy League, you get to the point in the season where all the teams know each other really well … and it becomes less about trying to pull tricks,” Townsend said. “It’s really just about … relying on what you’ve done well in the past and trusting in what you’ve done all year and what’s made you successful.”
For all of these Bulldogs, Saturday’s game represents the biggest stage of their lives. Unlike Harvard’s veteran stars, no Yale player has ever found himself this close to the NCAAs.
For the Eli senior class, though, victory means not just a tournament bid, but an opportunity to cement their Yale legacy.
“Thinking about Yale’s basketball history, being able to leave my mark and leave a legacy that includes bringing an NCAA berth to Yale during my last year would be great,” Duren said.
For Duren and his teammates, that goal is a mere 40 minutes away.
Tip-off is at 4 p.m. on Saturday at the Palestra.
Ashley Wu contributed reporting.