In their final home game of the calendar year, the Yale men’s basketball team went out with a bang, overcoming a back-and-forth first half against Vermont to blow out the Catamounts by 18 points.
The Bulldogs (5–3, 0–0 Ivy), who are now 3–0 at home, defeated the Catamounts (4–5, 0–0 America East) by a final score of 72–54, as forward Justin Sears ’16 and shooting guard Jack Montague ’16 scored 17 points apiece.
“It was an excellent effort by the team, especially in the second half,” Sears said. “It was also a great game for Jack to get back on track. As a team, we are really starting to come together.”
One key to the team’s cohesion was Sears’ return to the starting lineup after not starting the past two games due to a sinus infection, although the reigning Ivy League Player of the Year showed some signs of rustiness early on, turning the ball over three times in the first half as he attempted to regain his timing and explosiveness in one-on-one situations. Despite a relatively quiet six-point first half, Sears added 11 in the second as well as 10 total rebounds en route to his first double-double of the season.
Matching Sears’ production was a fellow senior returning to his typical form. After being held scoreless and going without a three-pointer in last Wednesday’s victory over Bryant, Montague found his range once more against Vermont, a team that has made seven consecutive postseason appearances and is the only Division I program in New England to have an active streak of seven straight 20-win seasons.
A year to the day removed from making a game-winning triple in Yale’s victory over the then-defending national champions the University of Connecticut Huskies, Montague made his presence felt early in Saturday’s contest.
The Brentville, Tennessee native knocked down his first three-pointer less than halfway through the first period, as part of a seven-point first half.
Montague’s backcourt mate, point guard Makai Mason ’18, paced the Bulldogs with 12 points at the half. The sophomore also capped off the tight period with his first assist of the day as time expired. After connecting on a jump shot to put Yale ahead 32–31 with 42 seconds left in the half, Mason drove the ball in transition following a turnover from Dre Wills and found Brandon Sherrod ’16, who slammed home a one-handed jam with five seconds left on the clock.
While Yale used a multipronged attack to build on its modest edge at halftime, Vermont relied on a spark off the bench to stay afloat. Led by left-handed guard Cam Ward, the Catamounts were able to remain close despite getting just 13 points from their starters. The Bulldogs had no answer for the smooth-shooting Ward, who scored 16 points on 5–7 shooting from the field, including two three-pointers. He also added four points from the charity stripe.
The competitive first half was reminiscent of last year’s contest in Burlington, Vermont, when forward Matt Townsend ’15 hit a last-second jump shot to propel the Bulldogs to a 57–56 victory.
However, unlike last year, when a four-point Yale lead at halftime was indicative of the tight ending to come, this year’s close halftime margin was broken wide open in the second half. The Bulldogs carried the momentum of Mason’s playmaking to close the first period into the final frame, and a defensive adjustment on Ward — double-teaming the prolific scorer on screens as well as sending different Bulldog defenders at him — amounted to a low-stress victory for Yale.
In fact, Ward’s lone basket in the second period came off an insignificant lay-up with less than a minute remaining.
“When he came in the game [in the second half], we trapped him, tried to get the ball out of his hands, because he was a difficult guard for us in the first half,” head coach James Jones said. “He made some really difficult shots. When we took that part of [Vermont’s] offense away, it enabled us to go on some runs. We did a good job guarding the rest of their starters.”
Meanwhile, Yale’s offense clicked in the second half behind its captain. Montague scored 10 of Yale’s first 14 points, including a sequence in which the guard connected on back-to-back threes to extend Yale’s lead to 44–33 with 15:31 remaining.
“I hit a couple midrange jumpers to get me into a rhythm,” Montague said. “The [second three] was just a heat check.”
Lifted by Montague, who is now shooting 44.2 percent from long distance, the Yale advantage swelled to as much as 21 points in the second half.
Although the Bulldogs finished the game shooting 54 percent from the field, as compared to 30.5 percent from Vermont — which was playing without the team’s third-leading scorer, Ernie Duncan — Yale did turn the ball over 20 times, an area both Jones and Sears said could be improved. The Elis are now averaging 13.5 turnovers per game.
Three of Sears’ four turnovers on the day were the result of traveling violations. In the second half, Vermont head coach John Becker was assessed a technical foul for arguing for another such call.
Despite the turnover woes, Jones took what he called “not a glass half-full approach but a glass overflowing” outlook on the win.
“My thought is that if we actually made a free throw, because we were 12 for 22, and if we turned the ball over at our average, we could have had 90 points,” Jones said. “So, that’s the bright side of it. We turned it over and won by 18. If we’re sitting here with an 18-point loss, that would be a little more concerning.”
Mason was the only Bulldog other than Sears and Montague to reach double-digits. The point guard scored 16 points, maintaining his team-leading average of 16.8 points per game.
Guard Nick Victor ’16 contributed yet again on the defensive end of the floor. In addition to helping shut down Ward in the second half, Victor snatched 10 rebounds to tie Sears for the team high.
Though Yale’s bench production has been lacking consistency this season, Yale’s reserves added 11 points in a game when its starters put the game out of hand.
After defeating Bryant last Wednesday and now Vermont, Yale heads into a challenging stretch within the next week, kicking off on Wednesday against Illinois. The Elis will also travel to sunny Los Angeles for a game against Pac-12 foe Southern California on Sunday.