The Yale men’s basketball team lived up to high expectations on Friday afternoon, winning its season opener against Fairfield 70–57 despite just six points from reigning Ivy League Player of the Year, forward Justin Sears ’16.
A strong defensive performance and impressive days from point guard Makai Mason ’18 and forward Brandon Sherrod ’16 allowed the Bulldogs to dominate the Stags, leading by as many as 24 points in their season debut.
“The biggest thing coming into the game was we knew they were going to press,” Mason said of Fairfield. “It was just trying not to get sped up and run our offense in the half court whether they were doing man or zone, so I had a couple opportunities and tried to take those. If the defense came over, I’d just drop it down. It’s pretty simple with our offense.”
That offense shot 37.9 percent from the field and 23.8 percent from the three-point line, scoring 25 points in each half.
With Sears in foul trouble early on, the Ivy League’s reigning Player of the Year played just 10 minutes of the first half. Though he would return in the second half and end up with six points in his 23 total minutes, going 3–9 from the field, it was not the performance Yale fans have come to expect from the forward.
Head coach James Jones said that though Fairfield doubled up on Sears at times, its defense was not the reason Sears posted just six points and four rebounds, paling in comparison to the 14.3 points and 7.5 rebounds he averaged a year ago.
“Justin took Justin away today,” Jones said. “He just wasn’t himself today, and I expect him to be himself tomorrow and going forward. But certainly if we add Justin playing like himself to the mix of the guys we have, I think we got a chance to be really pretty good.”
In his absence, the Bulldogs relied on the strong backcourt duo of Mason and captain Jack Montague ’16.
Montague shot 50 percent from both the field and beyond the arc, notching 13 points as well as five rebounds. Mason, meanwhile, seamlessly stepped into the point guard role so successfully held by Javier Duren ‘15 last season. The sophomore combined scrappy defense with clean shooting en route to a career-high 23-point game.
“Obviously Javier was a huge part of the team last year and he kind of made everything run, but I felt pretty confident coming into the game, just because of the trust of my teammates and practice,” Mason said. “It hasn’t been too bad of a transition to try and fill that role.”
Right behind Mason in terms of points was former Whiffenpoof Sherrod, who, in his first basketball game in over a year, picked up a career-high of his own with 20 points on just eight shots. He also led the team in rebounds with seven — after the game, Mason called him “a monster on the boards today.”
Sherrod overcame some initial nerves, settling down once he made a few free throws nearly 14 minutes into the first half. When he made his first of what would end up being a 10–13 day from the charity stripe, it broke a 22–22 tie. Minutes later, Sherrod had broken the game open all on his own, behind a few more free throws as well as a pair of dunks, and the score was 34–22. All 12 points in the Yale run came from the Bridgeport, Connecticut native.
“I thought he might’ve been a little nervous,” Jones said of Sherrod. “He hasn’t played in a year. It was his first time lacing them up and going into a college game … he had some jitters, I thought, but he really calmed himself and was a force for us down low, in scoring the basket and really rebounding the ball. They only have him down for seven, but it seemed like he got his hands on every single one of them.”
The Bulldogs significantly out-rebounded their opponents, nearly doubling the Stags’ numbers. The Elis crashed the glass effectively all afternoon to notch 47 rebounds, 19 of which were offensive. Fairfield had just 24 total rebounds.
Guard Nick Victor ’16, back from an injury that sidelined him for most of last year, was right behind Sherrod with six rebounds — three offensive and three defensive — and guard Khaliq Ghani ’16 added four defensive rebounds.
Ghani was one of three players who came off the bench and played at least 10 minutes. Guard Anthony Dallier ’17 and forward Sam Downey ’17 combined with Ghani to add 11 rebounds but the trio’s only points came from a pair of free throws from Downey.
Six other Elis, including four freshmen, added minutes though none scored —Yale’s starters scored 68 of its 70 points. Fairfield’s bench outscored Yale’s, 27–2.
“We only had two points from our bench. That obviously can’t continue,” Jones said. “In order to be really good this year, we have to get some help from the guys coming in and adding to it … When they’re not scoring … they’re adding other things that help us be successful. I like the group of guys that we have and I think there are some other guys on our team that we can work into the mix.”
But bench points was the only area in which the Stags outscored the Elis. With 17 points off turnovers and 16 second chance points, Yale led for over 28 minutes of action, including the entire second half. Fairfield also gifted the Bulldogs with 26 fouls; Yale took advantage, converting 21 of 27 free throw attempts.
The team’s home opener is Monday night, when Sacred Heart comes to John J. Lee Amphitheatre. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m.