Though this past weekend marked a number of firsts for the Yale men’s basketball team — its first undefeated home season since Payne Whitney Gymnasium opened, its first season sweep of Harvard since the 2007–08 season and its first pair of back-to-back 20-win seasons since the two that spanned 1906–1908 — it also marked one significant “last”: the Bulldogs’ final regular season home games.
With a 59–50 win against Harvard and a 76–71 overtime triumph over Dartmouth, the Elis (20–6, 11–1 Ivy) sit a half-game ahead of Princeton in the Ivy League standings. Princeton, the only conference opponent to beat Yale, has three more games on its slate while the Bulldogs face Cornell and Columbia this weekend.
“I think this team has great confidence in themselves no matter what situation we are in and that’s why we were able to pull this one out,” head coach James Jones said after dispatching the Big Green Saturday night. “Certainly going through it and seeing the ball go in and coming out victorious helps you, but … no matter what happens or what we face, we always feel like we have a chance to win and we are going to attack every game with that in mind.”
The Bulldogs finished their home schedule with an unblemished 12–0 mark, winning those games by an average margin of 19.4 points per victory. This weekend’s conquests, however, were not so lopsided and included the first overtime contest of the season for Yale.
On Friday against Harvard, the Elis led by as many as 19 points. They outperformed the Crimson on the boards, outrebounding Harvard 38–29, and from the field, shooting 44.4 percent compared to Harvard’s 40 percent.
The victory marked the first home victory for the Bulldogs over the Crimson since the 2010–11 season. Harvard entered the season having won five consecutive Ivy League championships — including a share of last year’s title with Yale — but with its eighth loss, the Crimson will finish with a losing record in the Ivy League for the first time since 2008.
“It’s great,” guard Nick Victor ’16 said. “[Harvard] has had some really good teams the past couple years. This is a great team. The Harvard–Yale rivalry has always been strong, so it’s always good to come out and win those.”
Thanks in large part to the tough defense of forward Brandon Sherrod ’16, the Elis held Harvard center and leading scorer Zena Edosomwan to zero points on 0–5 shooting from the floor. Other than forward Agunwa Okolie, who tallied 11 points, no Crimson starter scored in double-digits.
Forward Justin Sears ’16 came close to notching a double-double with 12 points and nine rebounds to go along with five assists. Victor also fell just short of the mark, scoring nine points and grabbed a game-high 11 rebounds.
Sears’ scoring output was only bested by the performance of point guard Makai Mason ’18, who paced the Bulldogs with 16 points. He shot 50 percent from the three-point line with 4–8 shooting, a welcome sight for an Eli team that had gone 5–29 from deep in its previous three games.
On the weekend, though, Mason did struggle shooting from the floor. He was 4–13 against Harvard, and that uncharacteristic inefficiency carried over to Saturday as Mason shot 4–18 against Dartmouth, including 1–6 from beyond the arc.
But although he only made four shots from the field, it was his final basket of the night that more than made up for the 14 missed attempts.
After a back-and-forth second half, Sherrod’s and-one with 39 seconds remaining in regulation pushed Yale ahead by two. But after Big Green guard Miles Wright knocked down his only three-point attempt of the night, and followed it up with a split pair of free throws, Yale faced a two-point deficit with eight seconds to play.
With first-place in the Ivy League, an undefeated home season and a victory on Senior Night all on the line, it was a sophomore who rose to the occasion. Mason dribbled the ball the length of the court, took advantage of a space-creating screen from Sears and pulled up at the elbow for the game-tying jumper with 5.4 seconds remaining.
The play was impressive on its own, but considering Mason had been limited by an ankle injury he sustained midway through the second half, it was even more head-turning.
“If he had a concussion and his ear was falling off, I might think about [sitting Mason],” Jones said. “No, certainly, I asked Makai how he was and he gave me a thumbs up several times. I was concerned about it, and it did cross my mind that we might have to that, but fortunate for us, he was good enough to go. I wish him a healthy recovery week.”
Mason’s health is a potential area of concern for the Bulldogs, whose starters have not been getting much rest recently. Against Harvard, Mason played the full 40 minutes and every starter played 29 minutes or more. The Dartmouth contest was much of the same, as all five Yale starters tallied at least 38 minutes.
That time on the court translated to plenty of points, as each starter scored double-digits against the Big Green, while the bench managed just five points.
In the overtime period, the trio of Sherrod, Sears and Mason combined to score all 13 Yale points while the Bulldog defense clamped down. Dartmouth needed more than three minutes to score in overtime, by which point Yale had already built a five-point advantage. Dartmouth never cut the lead closer than three points, while Yale was able to ice the game at the foul line — the Bulldogs converted on nine of 10 attempts from the charity stripe over the final five minutes.
While Sears missed out on a double-double against Harvard, the Plainfield, New Jersey native accomplished the feat on Saturday night behind a 14-point, 11-rebound outing. Meanwhile, Victor tallied 15 points, on 6–8 shooting, and eight boards.
“I’m sure [Victor] flies under the radar in the league for honors. I’m sure there’s nobody saying Nick Victor is an All-League player, but to me he obviously is,” Jones said. “He’s the glue that holds us together, and he does a lot of different things for us, defensively, rebounding the ball. He’s the best one-on-one defender in the league.”
Before the game against the Big Green, the four Bulldog seniors — Sears, Victor, Sherrod and Khaliq Ghani ’16 — who have been a part of 75 wins, and counting, as a group were honored on Senior Night. The overtime victory itself served as an electrifying conclusion to their careers in the John J. Lee Amphitheater.
The gravity of the moment resonated with Sears, who reflected on his time as an Eli following Saturday’s contest.
“Earlier in this morning, I was just sitting down before Dartmouth came for shootaround to just take it all in,” Sears said at the post-game press conference. “It is a great gym. I think I spent most of my Yale career in here, more time than in the library, class and probably even my bed … I just hope we can bring a championship back to JLA and have another number on the banner.”
The weekend sweep, paired with Princeton’s own two-win weekend, keeps both squads even in the loss column. Should Yale win both of its games this weekend, and should Princeton win its final three contests, the two teams would share the Ivy League title, with an Ivy League Playoff to decide which school earns the Ancient Eight’s automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament.
The Bulldogs’ crucial weekend series pits them against Cornell on Friday and Columbia on Saturday, with both games on the road.