I’d been to the Palestra once before. Three years ago I followed Yale to Philadelphia on the final day of Yale’s Ivy League season. Though the Bulldogs stood just a game behind Harvard heading into the final weekend, a Crimson victory coupled with a tough Eli loss at Princeton ensured that Yale’s NCAA tournament drought would celebrate its golden anniversary.
With nothing to play for, Yale looked like it did not want to play at all, letting an early Penn lead balloon into a 21-point loss. The image came back to me on Saturday evening, with the clarity only pain can bring, like my life flashing before my eyes. A five-point Yale lead early in the second half had evaporated in the heat of a 13–0 Harvard run. Up 46–37 with 6:19 to play, Harvard suddenly was in the driver’s seat, and the Elis looked like they were just a speed bump on the Crimson road to a fourth straight trip to the Big Dance.
But this wasn’t the Yale team of four years ago. Back then, forward Justin Sears ’16 was just a high school senior in New Jersey, guard Makai Mason ’18 was too young to get a driver’s license and guards Javier Duren ’15 and Armani Cotton ’15 had played a combined 109 minutes for Yale.
They weren’t a part of the collapse in 2012, and they all made damn sure there wouldn’t be a collapse in 2015.
Those four led a comeback on both ends of the floor that saw Yale erase the deficit and retake the lead 49–48 on a Mason jumper with 1:47 to go. Yale’s NCAA tournament hopes, which in the course of a week had gone from great to good to maybe next year, were reborn. Other articles in this newspaper and across the country can tell you in gory detail about what happened over the next two minutes — two controversial calls went Harvard’s way, good Yale defense led to a long shot for Harvard forward Steve Moundou-Missi, who buried it for the game-winner — so I won’t bore you with redundant information.
The seconds following that shot bear repeating, however, if only because I know that I will replay them in my mind for years to come.
Rather than calling a timeout and letting Harvard set up its stalwart defense, head coach James Jones opted to push the ball. His decision was made easier because he could put the ball in the hands of Duren. Now a salty veteran with more than 2,700 minutes and 1,000 career points under his belt, Duren drove the length of the floor and got a good look near the basket.
From my seat in the student section, second row just to the left of the basket facing the court, I saw Duren rise, the ball roll off his fingertips, kiss high off the glass and float downwards, seemingly on a perfect trajectory to send the game into overtime and the Yale student section into a frenzy. But the ball met rim, somehow clanging out of the cylinder rather than scorching the net. Sears got to the ball, but his tip, like Yale’s NCAA tournament bid, fell just short. The buzzer sounded, and if you watch the replay on ESPN, you can see me throw my hands into the air, confused and wanting something more. I wanted a foul call, I wanted overtime and a larger part of me than I care to admit wanted my mommy.
Disbelief set in. It wasn’t fair. I stood on the edge of the court as the rest of the crowd filed out, staring as Harvard cut down the net like one stares at a grisly accident on the other side of the highway.
After a while, Yale’s players trickled back out to the court. I looked over and saw Duren smiling as he talked to a local television crew, telling reporters “As much as I want to be upset, it’s really just awesome to be part of this experience.” I saw captain Greg Kelley ’15 talking to family and friends. And I saw Sears making the rounds, talking warmly to the queue looking to get a word with the newly-crowned Ivy League Player of the Year.
The poise shown by those players and the rest of their teammates contrasted sharply with the dejected looks I witnessed three years ago. That team took a 13-point lead into the half of its Collegeinsider.com Tournament game against Fairfield, only to be outscored by 25 in the second half.
As I trudged out of the Palestra three years ago, a fellow reporter and I predicted that Yale’s season was effectively over, that the team didn’t have the fight in it to win in the postseason. As I walked out of the Palestra on Saturday night, I sensed that these Bulldogs have a lot of fight left in them, and that they have a lot of basketball left to play.
Bring on the postseason.