The Yale men’s basketball team lived up to high expectations Friday afternoon, winning its season opener against Fairfield 70–57 despite seeing 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 (1–0, 0–0 Ivy) to dominate the Stags (0–2, 0–0 Metro Atlantic), leading by as many as 24 points at one point 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 did not shoot particularly well — Yale hit just 37.9 percent of its attempts from the field and 23.8 percent from the three-point line arc, both figures slightly worse than Fairfield’s record. But a 47–24 rebounding edge, including 19 Eli offensive boards, and 14 more free-throw attempts enabled the Bulldogs to earn the upper hand.
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 senior 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 [Sears] 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 in addition to snatching five rebounds. Mason, meanwhile, seamlessly stepped into the point guard role so successfully held by first-team All-Ivy recipient Javier Duren ’15 last season. The sophomore from Greenfield, Massachusetts combined scrappy defense with an 8–15 shooting performance en route to a career-high 23-point game.
“Obviously [Duren] 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.”
While Mason and Montague combined for 36 points, Yale’s returning Whiffenpoof, Sherrod, picked up the slack for Sears’ lack of offensive production. Sherrod posted a career-high of his own with 20 points on just eight shots in his first basketball game in over a year. He also led the team in rebounds with seven — Mason called him “a monster on the boards today” following the contest.
After a pair of missed layups, Sherrod overcame his initial nerves, settling down once he made a pair of free throws 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 couple 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 native.
“I thought he might’ve been a little nervous,” Jones said of Sherrod’s first minutes of the game. “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 [rebounds], but it seemed like he got his hands on every single one of them.”
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, who played 16 minutes, was one of three Bulldogs 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, four steals and three assists.
Six other Elis, including four freshmen, added minutes though none scored — Yale’s starters scored 68 of its 70 points with the lone bench points coming from two Downey free throws. 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 outperformed 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 Amphitheater. Tipoff is scheduled for 7 p.m.