The Yale men’s basketball team saw its season conclude in heartbreaking fashion, as the Bulldogs fell to ancient rival Harvard in the Ivy League Playoff between the two co-champions.
Just one week after defeating the Crimson (22–7, 11–3 Ivy) 62–52 in Cambridge, the Elis (22–10, 11–3) were unable to find that same offensive magic at the Palestra in Philadelphia on March 14, letting an NCAA Tournament bid slip away in a devastating 53–51 loss after Harvard’s Steve Moundou-Missi hit a long jumper from the top of the key with 7.2 seconds remaining to take the lead. A final second layup opportunity by point guard Javier Duren ’15 rolled out, and a tip by forward Justin Sears ’16 fell harmlessly short.
“I was looking at coach, I didn’t know if he was going to call timeout or not, and he was just telling me to go,” Duren said. “So I just tried to make a play. Unfortunately, it fell short, but I’m still proud of our guys.”
The week was bookended by last-second defeats, as Dartmouth forced the playoff on Saturday, March 7, with a game-winning layup by Gabas Maldunas. The play, which happened with just 0.5 seconds left, came after the Elis blew a five-point lead with 35 seconds remaining and — combined with Harvard’s victory over Brown on the same day — moved Yale into a tie with the Cantabs. The sting of the collapse against the Big Green was only made worse by the fact that the Bulldogs were unable to seal the deal in the rubber match against the Crimson.
In a battle between star players, Wesley Saunders took over down the stretch for the Crimson, single-handedly facilitating Harvard’s win. The former Ivy League Player of the Year had been held to just 11 points in the teams’ previous contest at Lavietes Pavilion, but he doubled his scoring output at the Palestra, shooting 8–15 from the field for 22 points.
Sears, this season’s Player of the Year, started the game off strong, scoring eight points in the first half to go along with five rebounds, which combined to set Sears up for a double-double. But he managed just five more points the rest of the game for a total of 13, and he grabbed zero boards after intermission.
Without a dominant performance from Sears, the Bulldogs were left to rely on their experienced upperclassmen. Duren, who shined for the Elis with 22 points in Cambridge, was held to an inefficient 12 points on 2–10 shooting. His contributions, however, were matched by Moundou-Missi, who added 11 points and a game-high nine rebounds for the Crimson.
No other player scored in double figures for Yale, and the Bulldogs sorely missed the contributions from sharpshooter Jack Montague ’16, who went scoreless for the second straight weekend. The dominance of Harvard’s top two players, who scored just two points fewer than the entire Bulldogs starting lineup, overwhelmed the Elis and was the difference-maker in the final minutes of the game.
After the teams came back from halftime with Yale leading 27–23, Saunders caught fire, as he scored 18 of his 22 points in the second half. He orchestrated his own 9–0 run over a stretch of 1:40 early in the period, outscoring the Yale team for the first 11:03 of the second half.
“He made a lot of key baskets,” head coach James Jones said. “He’s a very good player, and, certainly, he stepped up and made some shots. We guarded him with a couple of different guys, and he was still able to knock down shots and was aggressive. That’s what good players do.”
When the Bulldogs regained the lead with 1:47 to play, Saunders willed the Crimson to victory, converting a critical three-point play at the 1:27 mark and assisting on Moundou-Missi’s final jumper with 7.2 seconds remaining that sent Harvard to its fourth straight NCAA Tournament.
With the Elis just inches away from a bid for the first time in 53 years, the playoff was a disappointing end to the season, as Yale was not invited to the National Invitation Tournament. But despite the bittersweet finish, the Bulldogs ended with their most wins since the 1948–49 campaign and will return Sears, Montague and guard Makai Mason ’18, among others.
“A couple weeks from now, we’ll come back and [see this season as] something really special,” Sears said. “Hopefully it’ll be the groundwork or the foundation for more successful teams in the future of Yale basketball.”