A drought, a streak, a torment — call it whatever you want. It is over. After 54 years, the Yale men’s basketball team is finally returning to the Big Dance.
With Yale’s 71–55 triumph over Columbia (21–9, 10–3 Ivy) on Saturday night, the Bulldogs (22–6, 13–1) claimed sole possession of the Ivy League title and the accompanying berth in the NCAA Tournament, a feat the team has not accomplished since 1962.
“This team right here is the best team I’ve ever coached,” Yale head coach James Jones said. “So I’m excited to see what we’re going to do against whoever we’re going to play. ”
Yale entered the game riding the momentum of an 88–64 demolition of Cornell the previous night. That, coupled with the implications of the game, set off a 50.9 percent shooting effort from the Bulldogs in a game they led wire-to-wire, the only threat being one run from Columbia (21–10, 10–4) that shrunk the lead to four midway through the second half.
With forward Justin Sears ’16, Yale’s leading scorer, scoring in the single digits for the second consecutive night, the Bulldog supporting cast displayed its depth. Sears finished with four points and eight rebounds, but the remaining four Eli starters each scored in double figures.
Point guard Makai Mason ‘18, who led both teams with 22 points on the night, was a key to Yale’s domination right from the start, scoring four of Yale’s first eight points. Mason flashed his smooth jump shot and quick first step to the basket en route to 13 points in the first half on 6–11 shooting from the floor.
With the defensive penetration created by Mason, other perimeter shooters — guards Anthony Dallier ‘17 and Nick Victor ‘16 — combined to shoot 5–9 from beyond the arc in the contest.
Dallier knocked down back-to-back three pointers to extend the early lead to 17–3 and then sparked another run when he and Victor connected on consecutive treys. Victor, who entered the game with the Ivy League’s best shooting percentage from beyond the arc, also picked up a team-high five boards in the opening frame.
Victor finished the contest with a double-double, registering 11 points and 12 rebounds.
Beyond the team’s 54.8 percent first-half shooting, the Bulldogs also benefitted from strong offensive rebounding. Through the first eight minutes, Yale had four offensive rebounds to Columbia’s single defensive rebound. By the end of the game, the Bulldogs outrebounded the Lions 39–24, with an 11–7 edge on the offensive glass.
While Mason rested on the bench with a 14-point lead and 9:03 remaining in the half, the Lions slowly climbed back into the game thanks in large part to guard Maodo Lo. Lo scored 10 consecutive points for Columbia, trimming the Eli lead to nine and energizing the home crowd.
Despite the Lions’ offensive surge, the Bulldogs never let the lead drop beneath six points for the final 16:12 of the opening period behind tight man-to-man defense. Trey Phills ’19 blocked a three-point attempt from guard Grant Mullins, and Mason forced two steals, repeatedly diving for loose balls.
Thanks to the Elis’ hot shooting and relentless defense, the team took a 41–27 advantage into the locker room.
But as the Bulldogs learned last season, when it twice squandered an opportunity to advance to the NCAA Tournament, it was never going to be easy.The Lions switched into a 2–3 zone to begin the second half, which slowed down the Yale attack. The Bulldogs scored just eight points in the first 11 minutes of play, allowing the Lions to cut the deficit to as little as four points, forcing Jones to call a timeout with 9:15 remaining in the game.
After taking a two-minute break on the sidelines, Mason re-entered the game and immediately knocked down a three, which was followed by a triple from guard Khaliq Ghani ‘16 to move the lead back to double-digits with 7:31 remaining in the game.
Following a three-pointer from Lo and a free throw made by Columbia forward Alex Rosenberg, Ghani would hit another open three to keep the Lions at bay. The lead would hover around 10 for the rest of the game until Columbia began fouling with less than two minutes left.
Rosenberg scored 11 points, while Lo finished the game with a team-high 21 points. from 9–16 shooting.
The Elis are currently one of just two teams, the other being Ohio Valley Conference champion Austin Peay, that can book their tickets for the NCAA Tournament with certainty. Yale’s seeding in March Madness will be determined on Selection Sunday, which is on March 13.