Daniela Brighenti

It is difficult to contextualize the 54 years since the Yale men’s basketball team last played in the NCAA Tournament.

Some emphasize historical distance, like the oft-cited fact that former President John F. Kennedy was in the White House the last time Yale went to the Big Dance back in 1962. Others note that a gallon of gasoline cost just $0.31 at the time. Those looking to draw a comparison to today’s Yale squad may mention that current head coach James Jones was two years away from even being born.

But on Saturday night, the Bulldogs (22–6, 13–1 Ivy) ensured that the 2015–16 team would join the hallowed ranks of the 1961–62 Elis.

With last weekend’s sweep, Yale stamped its ticket to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1962, and for just the fourth time in program history. In doing so, the team ended the second-longest NCAA Tournament drought by a team that had previously attended the tournament.

“If you’re going to be successful, you need guys willing to give everything up for everything and these guys certainly are,” Jones said at the postgame press conference. “They’ve done a great job throughout their careers and this season.”

Jones, the longest-tenured coach in the Ivy League, earned his second career conference championship, though the team’s 13–1 Ivy campaign provided him with his first outright title and trip to the NCAA tournament. Jones was previously the longest tenured Division I coach without a March Madness appearance.

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For the second consecutive weekend, the Bulldogs did not trail once during the 80 minutes of play, defeating Cornell (10–18, 3–11) and Columbia (21–10, 10–4) by double-digit margins. Yale’s consistently impressive defense held both the Big Red and the Lions to well below their season scoring averages, and the Bulldog offense earned a boost from some of its strongest bench play of the season.

Neither Cornell nor Columbia had an interior defense strong enough to stop the Bulldogs down low, as Yale averaged 35 points in the paint and a plus-14 rebounding margin this weekend.

The Bulldogs made quick work of Cornell, outscoring the Big Red 40–22 in the first half en route to an 88–64 victory. In Ithaca, forward Brandon Sherrod ’16 scored a game-high 18 points, while guard Khaliq Ghani ’16 provided a spark off the bench.

“Sometime [shots] fall, sometimes they don’t,” Ghani said after the Cornell contest. “They were falling tonight, so that felt good.”

Ghani finished with 12 points on 5–10 shooting from the floor against Cornell, which marked the first of two strong performances for the senior in the final regular-season weekend of his career. He also drained two three-pointers in key moments against Columbia the following night.

The play of Ghani, as well as other perimeter players such as starting guard Anthony Dallier ’17, continued to demonstrate the team’s ability to absorb the loss of former captain and guard Jack Montague. Since his Feb. 10 withdrawal from the University, which his father told the New Haven Register was an expulsion, Montague’s absence led to questions concerning depth in the backcourt as well as senior leadership.

Jones downplayed the impact of Montague’s departure on the team’s pursuit of a championship, a stretch during which Yale went 7–1 without last year’s league leader in three-point shooting percentage.

“[Director of Athletics Tom] Beckett told me when I got the job I could change anything but I can’t change the number of captains we have, and that’s something that’s sacred to Yale,” Jones said. “But what we’ve done throughout my entire career is make sure that our seniors and our juniors understand that they have leadership roles on the team so it’s not one guy. You can’t put everything on one person. It’s been spread out through the team for the entire season so [the loss of the a captain] wasn’t as big a hit as one might think.”

Due to the 6 p.m. tipoff time at Cornell, the Elis were well into their roughly four-hour drive to Columbia when they received word that Princeton had lost to Harvard. That loss, which put the Tigers at 10–2 on the season, granted Yale control of its own destiny, as a win over Columbia guaranteed an outright title and the accompanying NCAA berth.

“We were on the bus [when we found out about Princeton],” Mason said. “There wasn’t great Wi-Fi so there were about three phones being passed back and forth and everybody was huddled around a couple seats. Some guys didn’t want to hear the score or anything about it until they knew it was over. It probably wasn’t very safe but we erupted on the bus, jumping up and down.”

That reaction, Jones said, was evidence of the great thing about sports: It makes grown men act like children. Calling it a “great, joyous, wonderful” team experience, Jones said in that moment, he was “about seven, Makai [Mason ’18] was four-and-a-half and Brandon [Sherrod] was nine.”

But on the court, the sophomore standout Mason played beyond his years. One week removed from Ivy League Player of the Week honors and a heroic performance down the stretch versus Dartmouth, Mason put together another strong weekend marked by efficient scoring and active defense.

In addition to scoring 34 points in the two victories, the point guard also tallied six rebounds, five assists and three steals.

“[Mason is] a bad man,” Jones said. “He’s a little dude, but what’s great about him is that whoever we play [in the NCAA Tournament], somebody is going to try and push up on him and he’ll blow right by them. They don’t think he can handle the ball, they don’t think he’s quick enough, but he’s a tremendous athlete and has worked endlessly to make himself a better basketball player.”

Four of the five Eli starters reached double-digit scoring against Columbia, a 71–55 victory. Guard Nick Victor ’16 registered 12 points and 12 rebounds for a double-double, while Dallier knocked down three triples and finished with 12 points.

Two of Dallier’s three made shots from deep were part of an electrifying opening stretch for Yale. The Bulldogs jumped out to a 17–3 lead in front of a sold-out Levien Gymnasium. Behind the hot start, the Elis remained well in control much of the evening, though an 8–0 Columbia run midway through the second half cut the lead to four.

However, Mason answered with a three-pointer off a team offensive rebound, and Ghani proceeded to knock down a pair of triples that gave Yale breathing room down the stretch.

Forward Justin Sears ’16, the reigning Ivy League Player of the Year and potential front-runner for this year’s award, did not produce his typical scoring output. Although Sears scored just five points against Cornell and four against Columbia, he was able to affect the game in practically every other facet of the game. He grabbed 10 rebounds and dished out four assists on Friday, and nearly matched those numbers against Columbia with eight rebounds and five assists in addition to three blocks.

His frontcourt mate Sherrod, who set an NCAA record earlier the season with 30 consecutive made field goals, benefitted from the double-teams Sears pulled. After going 6–6 from the field against Cornell, Sherrod ended up 12–13 on the weekend.

“I’m a little upset with Brandon,” Jones said jokingly after the Columbia game. “He goes 6–6 last night, but he actually missed a shot tonight. He was 6–7. I don’t know who he thinks he’s playing for.”

The emotion and excitement of clinching the title and the prized NCAA berth was evident on Saturday, beginning before the final whistle blew. With the victory well in-hand — Jones acknowledged afterwards that there is no such thing as an “11-point play” — the coach went one-by-one down his bench, congratulating each coach, manager and player in helping him attain his long-elusive goal of an outright Ivy championship.

When the game clock finally displayed zeros, the team exploded off the bench and mobbed at halfcourt. Friends, family, alumni and current students joined them in the celebration.

“It’s a great feeling, to know that you finished something you started and you did it with people that you love and people who love you back,” Jones said.

There was a large basketball alumni presence in New York on Saturday, including former captains Greg Kelley ’15 and Butch Graves ’84. Both expressed their intention to attend the Elis’ first-round NCAA tournament game.

“It’s an incredible feeling, a long time coming,” Graves said. “I’ve waited 30 years, since I graduated, so I’m extraordinarily happy for the team and especially for James [Jones] and all he’s done.”

This year’s triumph comes off last year’s share of the conference title, which included two last-second losses that extended the NCAA Tournament drought by yet another year.

Denying that last year’s disappointment, which was punctuated by an National Invitation Tournament snub, impacted this year’s team, the players put together Yale’s second 13–1 conference season in program history. The team’s first 13–1 record came during that illustrious 1961–62 campaign.

“It’s amazing,” Sherrod said. “You look up in the gym and see the last time we got to tournament was 1962, it really motivates you to win. Every college basketball player wants to go to the big dance. It’s unbelievable, great time for our school, great opportunity for our team. It’s surreal.”

The Bulldogs now await their scheduled opponent and location for the first round of the NCAA Tournament, which will be announced on March 13, or “Selection Sunday.” The first round matchups will be contested on either March 17 or 18.