Championship-caliber teams play their best ball in March. After two quality wins in the first weekend of March, the Yale men’s basketball team looks to be one of them.
Less than a week away from a showdown against Harvard in the semifinal of the Ivy League tournament, the Bulldogs (17–10, 9–5 Ivy) put together back-to-back impressive performances, including a 90–63 blowout of Cornell (8–21, 4–10) and a gritty 75–71 win over Columbia (11–16, 5–9), a team vying for a playoff spot. Yale’s motion offense thrived in both victories, as the Bulldogs played some of their most unselfish basketball of the season, assisting on 44 of their 60 buckets this weekend.
“We did a really good job sharing the ball and had some great interior passes especially in the second half,” head coach James Jones said after the Cornell game. “Our guys stuck to our script for most of the game and that makes a big difference for us.”
Yale received contributions up and down its lineup on Friday night against the Big Red. Four different Elis finished in double figures and the bench scored 33 points, compared to just seven from Cornell’s pine.
Captain and guard Anthony Dallier ’17 led the Bulldogs with 18 points in his penultimate game at John J. Lee Amphitheater. With the win, Yale clinched the No. 3 seed in the inaugural four-team conference tournament.
“It’s really exciting and a little bit relieving after the four-game skid in the middle of the season,” Dallier said. “At this point we’re happy we have a chance to go and win it.”
Despite having to fend off an onslaught from the conference’s leading scorer, Cornell guard Matt Morgan, the Bulldogs opened up an 18-point lead late in the first half after an 18–4 run. Yale never looked back, although Morgan finished the night leading all players with 28 points.
Reminiscent of their performance a week ago versus Dartmouth, the Bulldog shooters caught fire in the second half against Cornell, making seven of 12 shots from three-point range. Guard Miye Oni ’20 finished with 12 points and six assists while forward Sam Downey ’17 nearly had a double-double with 11 points and nine rebounds. Forward Blake Reynolds ’19 had a quiet night shooting, but finished with a game-high seven assists.
Saturday’s night game proved more challenging for the Bulldogs, as the Lions needed a win to keep their tournament dream alive. Downey started Yale off early on the team’s Senior Night, after he and Dallier were honored as the winningest class in modern Yale basketball history.
Still, the Lions were clicking from three-point range early, jumping out to an 11-point lead with 5:21 to play in the first half. In the opening 20 minutes, Columbia made seven of 12 shots from beyond the arc.
However, Yale clawed its way back into the game in the final five minutes of the first half. Guard Eric Monroe ’20 hit a big three that was followed by six straight made foul shots by guard Trey Phills ’19, narrowing Columbia’s lead. The Lions were up by just three heading into halftime.
Phills finished with 11 points, nine of which came from the free-throw line, and the other two courtesy of a high-flying alley-oop served up by Dallier. The sophomore, whose 81.1 percentage from the line is best on the team, emphasized the importance of sending the seniors out on the right note after the game.
“Downey and Tony [Dallier] are a great duo of people so I’m really happy to send them off in the right way because you always remember your last game whether it’s AAU, high school or college,” Phills said.
Reynolds stepped up in the second half for Yale, scoring 11 of his game-high 16 points down the stretch. The sophomore dropped eight of those in the first five minutes of the half, threatening Columbia’s lead before a flurry of buckets by guard Alex Copeland ’19 and forward Jordan Bruner ’20 put Yale on top.
The Lions came back to knot the contest up at 71 with two minutes to go, but Copeland answered by hitting the game-winning layup with 1:18 to play. His squad then locked down on defense for the final 78 seconds. The sixth-man standout will enter the tournament narrowly trailing Oni for the team lead in scoring, notching 12.9 per game compared to Oni’s 13.
“You always want to have some momentum going forward,” Jones said. “You can’t help but think about the way you played in your last game and we hope this game influences our next. I feel really good about the way we played. … I thought it was as gritty a performance as we’ve had all year. It took a lot to come back and get a win.”
The only flaw of the weekend came on the glass for Yale, the conference’s top-rebounding team. Columbia outrebounded the Bulldogs 46–36 on Saturday night as the Elis gave up 21 offensive boards, something they must correct heading into the Ivy League tournament.
Yale will begin its battle for a second straight NCAA tournament appearance by facing off against Harvard for the third time this season at 4 p.m. on Saturday. Top-seeded Princeton, who finished undefeated in Ivy play, faces Penn in a 1:30 p.m. semifinal. The Quakers snuck into the tournament after beating Harvard on a last-second three Saturday night.
The championship game, whose victor will represent the Ivy League in the NCAA tournament, tips off at noon on Sunday.