In the Yale men’s basketball team’s home opener, forward Justin Sears ’16 played how one might expect a reigning Ivy League Player of the Year to perform, propelling the Bulldogs past Sacred Heart 99–77.
Coming off a disappointing six-point performance against Fairfield on Friday in the team’s season-opening win, Sears wasted little time in making his presence felt Monday night. The senior knocked down a jump shot less than five minutes into the opening half to score his first two points of the game and never looked back. When the final whistle was blown, Sears had racked up 27 points, snatched six rebounds and dished out five assists.
“I talked to Mr. Sears after the first game of the year and I don’t think he played his best basketball [then],” head coach James Jones said. “I think he wanted to make sure he got off to a good start to help our team get off to a good start and show what he’s capable of doing.”
Sears suffered from foul trouble last week and shot 0–5 in the first half before picking up just six points in the second against Fairfield. On Monday, however, Sears jumped out to a quick start with 23 points, including five free throws, on 9–12 shooting in the first half.
In conjunction with Sears’ dominant performance, the play of the remaining Yale (2–0, 0–0 Ivy) starters left little doubt about the game’s outcome. Captain and shooting guard Jack Montague ’16 made three-pointers from seemingly every point of the arc and point guard Makai Mason ’18, who has taken over the starting point guard position previously held by graduate Javier Duren ’15, again left Yale fans asking “Javier who?”
Three days after pacing Yale with 23 of the team’s 70 points against Fairfield, Mason scored the first seven points of the game to catalyze the Elis’ attack against Sacred Heart (1–1, 0–0 Northeast).
“I think if I didn’t do it, somebody else was going to do it,” Mason said of his hot start. “It was nice to try to be aggressive at the start and jump-start the team to the early lead we had. I think we did a real good job to start on defense, too, which really helped us lead.”
But after Mason’s outburst to open the game, Sears took over. He scored six quick points when Mason and forward Brandon Sherrod ’16 went to the bench, including an impressive alley-oop from Montague on a fast break that forced a Sacred Heart timeout.
The Pioneers committed 16 fouls in the first half, including a technical foul by reigning Northeast Conference Rookie of the Week Quincy McKnight with 9:46 remaining in the period. The Bulldogs capitalized on the calls, scoring 15 points from the free-throw line en route to a 26–37 day from the charity stripe.
“We’ve been able to get to the free-throw line, and I think that’s a big part of [our early-season success],” Jones said. “We’re very difficult to guard because of our size and athleticism inside.”
Sacred Heart went on a run near the end of the first half and cut what was at one point a 15-point lead to single digits, but back-to-back threes from Montague in the final 2:18 kept the Bulldogs ahead by a comfortable margin.
As the final seconds of the half ticked away, guard Nick Victor ’16 got his hand on a missed Pioneer three and tipped the ball to Mason, who lobbed a high-arcing pass to a wide-open Sears. The Plainfield, New Jersey native slammed home the assist as the buzzer sounded, with Yale entering the half ahead 51–33.
Although Victor did not score in the contest, playing limited minutes due to foul trouble, he secured 11 of Yale’s 35 rebounds.
“It probably won’t be the last time [Victor contributes rebounding without scoring],” Jones said. “I don’t think officials knew another number to call in terms of fouls. He only played 22 minutes but he got two fouls with his hands up. He does a great job for us and he’s a big part of why we’ve been so successful this year. He’s bought into his role and he does a great job with it.”
The halftime break did little for the Pioneers as Yale cruised to victory in the second half, handling the few modest runs Sacred Heart mustered with relative ease. With Sears only on the court for 11 minutes in the second half, Mason scored 10 more points to finish the night with 20, his second-consecutive 20-point game.
Montague also added two three-pointers in the second half to round out his 15-point effort.
Mason’s former AAU teammate, Sacred Heart’s Cane Broome, tried his best to keep the Pioneers close. The two point guards battled back and forth throughout the contest, with Broome, coming off a 27-point game in the Pioneers’ season-opener, erupting for 21 second-half points to lead all scorers with 32 points.
While Broome had little support from an injury-depleted roster missing three starters, Yale benefitted from contributions across the board.
Jones expressed his satisfaction with guards Khaliq Ghani ’16 and Anthony Dallier ’17, who came off the bench and each scored nine points to lead the Bulldog reserves. In the frontcourt, forward Sam Downey ’17 added four points and three rebounds while forward Blake Reynolds ’19 scored his first career basket to go along with three nifty assists. The 24-point, five-assist performance from the bench was a significant improvement from Yale’s first game, in which the bench contributed just two of the team’s 70 points.
“What you’ll notice is that most times, when you play at home in your own building, there’s a comfort level,” Jones said. “I think that’s a big part of being good at home, and one of the reasons teams win a lot at home … we hope that gaining confidence and doing well at home means that the same guys can go out on the road and do the same thing.”
The Elis will be back in action Thursday, when they travel to Lehigh for a nonconference game against the Mountain Hawks. Jones described Lehigh as “a November Ivy League game,” comparing the team favorably to top conference teams like Columbia and Harvard.
Tip-off in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, is scheduled for 7 p.m.