The Yale men’s basketball team overcame a sloppy first half and 23 turnovers in total to keep Wednesday night’s game against Illinois competitive until the very end, but the Bulldogs eventually fell 69–65 in Champaign.
The Fighting Illini (5–5, 0–0 Big 10) scored 25 points off of Eli turnovers and relied on guards Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn down the stretch to fend off the Bulldogs (5–4, 0–0 Ivy).
“Turnovers really killed us, especially in the first half,” captain and shooting guard Jack Montague ’16 said. “We weren’t playing our brand of basketball, and we were forcing the issue on some passes. However, even with that we still should have pulled out a win.”
In Yale’s game against Vermont on Saturday, the Bulldogs accumulated a then-season-high 20 turnovers. Although the mistakes against the Catamounts were a concern for head coach James Jones, he acknowledged that the team had not struggled with turnovers up until that point.
However, Yale, which now averages 14.6 giveaways, racked up 13 turnovers in the first half alone against Illinois. Forward Justin Sears ’16, who registered his first double-double with 17 points and 10 rebounds of the season on Saturday, was held to just four points in the opening period, as Yale struggled to find its rhythm. Forward Sam Downey ’17 paced the Elis with seven points in the first half, as no Yale starter scored more than five points.
The Fighting Illini built upon 10 points apiece from Hill and Nunn to take a 33–25 halftime advantage. Illinois shot 39.4 percent from the field during the half, which was a minute increase from Yale’s 39.3 percent shooting clip.
“[I] told the team [at halftime] we couldn’t play [any] worse and we were only down eight and still in the game,” Jones said.
Despite the numerous giveaways, Yale dominated on the glass, outrebounding Illinois 23–12 over the first 20 minutes, including a 7–3 edge in offensive rebounds.
Following the halftime break and some locker room regrouping, the Bulldogs fought back and took a 37–35 lead thanks to a layup from guard Nick Victor ’16 at the 16:20 mark of the second half.
The two teams traded baskets during a back-and-forth stretch that included 11 consecutive Illinois points from Nunn, though the Fighting Illini secured the lead for good following a three-pointer from the high-scoring guard with 8:24 left to play.
“[Illinois] played well down the stretch and we made some mistakes,” Montague said. “It’s good to get that late game experience though.”
Although Illinois never relented its lead, Yale remained within striking distance during the final minutes of the game. The Bulldogs continued to crash the boards, as they finished with a 48–25 overall advantage that helped neutralize the team’s season-high number of turnovers. Forward Brandon Sherrod ’16 led all players with a career-high 14 rebounds, while Sears added nine and Victor contributed eight.
The Fighting Illini relied on Hill and Nunn, who were the only two Illinois players to score over the final 7:06 of action for the team’s final 13 points.
A three-pointer from point guard Makai Mason ’18 with two seconds remaining in the game brought the Bulldogs within two, though Nunn knocked down a pair of free throws immediately after to cap off his game-high 28 points and secure the 69–65 Fighting Illini victory.
Mason scored 11 points in the second half to finish with 15 points after a quiet start. Sears scored 17 points in the second half to finish the game with 21 points, including a 7–10 shooting mark from the field.
“I’m feeling really good about my shooting,” Sears said. “The time off from being sick gave me a chance to watch a game and practices from the sideline, giving me an idea for the best opportunities to make my shots.”
The Bulldogs shot 43.1 percent from the field, better than Illinois’ 40.0 percent — but the 23–5 turnover margin ultimately proved decisive.
The score varied drastically from the last meeting between the Elis and the Fighting Illini. Back in 2010, the then-No. 19 Illinois squad defeated Yale 73–47.
The Bulldogs play another high-profile game on Sunday, when they face Southern California in Los Angeles. Tipoff is scheduled for 4 p.m.