The Yale men’s basketball team entered the Thanksgiving break boasting a 3–0 record, but after three consecutive losses to Southern Methodist University, Duke and Albany, the Bulldogs now sport a 0.500 record following a week of valuable road experience.
The Elis (3–3, 0–0 Ivy) proved they could hold their own against some of the nation’s top teams, as demonstrated by a narrow 71–69 loss to now-No. 25 SMU and a tremendous first half against No. 6 Duke, though the Bulldogs eventually fell 80–61 to the defending national champions. In the final contest of the challenging road trip, however, the Elis failed to pose a threat in an 88–54 defeat at the hands of Albany on Sunday while playing without forward Justin Sears ’16, who averages 16.6 points per game, second-best on the team.
“If we have all of our pieces together, we are really good,” head coach James Jones said. “We can play at a really high level, and I think that we can compete with almost any team in the country when we have all of our pieces intact.”
The Elis came within two points of notching a noteworthy upset last Sunday over undefeated SMU (4–0, 0–0 American) in Dallas. Yale held the lead for more than 26 minutes of the game, including a 40–32 advantage at the half. The Bulldogs shot 54.2 percent from the field in the first half, during which point guard Makai Mason ’18 scored 16 of his career-high 24 points.
Led by 14 points in the second half from forward Jordan Tolbert, who provided the Mustangs with a much-needed spark off the bench, SMU took a 52–51 lead with 8:35 left in the game after Tolbert knocked down the second of four consecutive foul shots for the Fort Worth, Texas native.
SMU led from that point forward, but the Bulldogs kept the game interesting down the stretch. Sears banked home a three-pointer with two seconds left in the game to pull the Bulldogs within a point of the Mustangs, but Tolbert hit one of his two free throws with just a second left to go to push the final score to 71–69. Tolbert’s missed second attempt caromed off the rim and the clock ran out on Yale’s upset bid.
“I think our team played very physical and smart against a team like SMU,” captain and shooting guard Jack Montague ’16 said. “They have players at every position that can take over a game, and we did a good job of slowing down their offense and we battled on the boards. If we can do that, we can win a lot of games.”
In addition to Mason’s 24 points and seven assists, Sears scored 15 points on 6–14 shooting, while Montague was the third and final Bulldog to reach double figures, with 13 points behind a 3–4 night from three-point range.
The Mustangs, meanwhile, were led by balanced scoring from their starting unit as well as the impressive offensive performance from Tolbert off the bench. Four SMU starters scored either 11 or 12 points, while Tolbert led the team with 17, including seven free throws.
Poor shooting in the second half hindered Yale’s effort. The Bulldogs shot just 35.7 percent in the second half, including a 6–12 mark from the charity stripe.
The Bulldogs got another shot at a national power when they traveled to Durham, North Carolina to face the Blue Devils (5–1, 0–0 Atlantic Coast) the day before Thanksgiving. Yale began the game red-hot, scoring the first nine points of the game and opening the contest on a 13–4 run in front of a stunned Cameron Indoor Stadium crowd. Duke responded to take a 20–19 lead but Yale withstood the punch and answered right back, leading by seven with 5:04 remaining in the half.
Sears scored 10 points in the opening frame, while Mason and forward Brandon Sherrod ’16 each added eight points to propel the Yale attack. Guard Grayson Allen, who leads Duke with 22.7 points per game, kept the Blue Devils afloat during the first half, scoring 12 points, including 6–6 from the free-throw line.
An Allen dunk with 48 seconds left in the half was part of a 5–0 run that pushed the Blue Devils ahead 38–36 at the break.
In the second half, foul trouble and a stingy Blue Devil defense plagued the Bulldogs. After the close first period, Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski utilized a 1–3–1 zone to quiet Yale’s attack.
“Their two guards demand attention on them all the time. Mason did a great job beating us off the dribble in the first half,” Krzyzewski said. “That’s one of the reasons we went to the 1–3–1 zone, to keep him out of the paint. Montague spreads you out the whole time.”
The Blue Devils took advantage of a 9–30 shooting performance by the Elis in the second half to outscore Yale 42–25 and pull away with the victory.
Sherrod and guard Nick Victor ’16 were each limited by foul trouble, with Sherrod fouling out of the contest less than halfway through the second period. In his 17 minutes of action, the former Whiffenpoof registered eight points and eight rebounds.
“We got into foul trouble and that was our demise,” Jones said. “With Brandon Sherrod and Nick Victor in foul trouble, that really hurt us because we were not able to go to the offensive glass as much. We weren’t as good on the offensive glass without those two guys, and that really hurt our second-chance opportunities.”
Sears carried the scoring load for the Bulldogs with a game-high 19 points. Duke, meanwhile, was paced by 17 points from guard Matt Jones and 15 points from forward Brandon Ingram, the number-three freshman recruit in the nation.
Krzyzewski commended Sears’ play following the contest, noting that the Plainfield, New Jersey native could wreak havoc in the powerful ACC.
“I can see why they’re picked to win the Ivy League. [Justin] Sears is really good,” Krzyzewski said. “He could be an outstanding player in our league.”
With the victory, the Blue Devils extended their nonconference home winning streak to 119 games, an NCAA record.
In the final game of the road trip, Albany (4–3, 0–0 America East) handed the Bulldogs their third loss of the season in Yale’s most disappointing contest thus far. Yale competed without its star performer as Sears, the reigning Ivy League Player of the Year, was sidelined by illness.
“I did not think it was going to be that much of an adjustment, but certainly with the outcome and the way that we played, our emotions were not where they needed to be,” Jones said. “A lot of the times when one of your key players is out, others guys pick up and play at a greater level. We did not do that tonight.”
In his forward position, Sam Downey ’17 made his first career start. Downey scored five points and notched five rebounds in 18 minutes on the floor.
Without Sears, the Yale offense faltered in the first half against Jones’ alma mater, as the Great Danes took a 45–27 lead into the half behind a 69.2 percent shooting performance.
The second half saw a near-identical scoreline, as the Elis were outscored 43–27 by Albany. Twelve Bulldogs saw the court in the second period, including a team-high 16 minutes from forward Blake Reynolds ’19, who has been the go-to freshman thus far for Jones off the bench.
The letdown performance ended the road trip for the Bulldogs, which began with a Nov. 19 win over Lehigh. Jones expressed his excitement to finally play in front of the energy of a home crowd again.
The Bulldogs take the court again on Wednesday against Bryant. The 7 p.m. tipoff in John J. Lee Amphitheater marks the Elis’ first home game since Nov. 16 when they defeated Sacred Heart 99–77.
Maya Sweedler contributed reporting.