Seven games into the season, the Yale men’s basketball team encountered something strangely unfamiliar: a close game.
The Bulldogs (3–4, 0–0 Ivy) had largely avoided a down-to-the-wire contest until they hosted a veteran Vermont team (5–1, 0–0 America East) on Saturday at the John J. Lee Amphitheater. Yale nearly played the Catamounts to a stalemate in the first half, but Vermont’s front-court play and experience ultimately overcame a dominant performance from guard Miye Oni ’20 to eke out a 79–73 victory in a game with 16 lead changes.
Before that narrow loss, the Elis strung together two consecutive routs over Thanksgiving recess, dispatching Curry (1–3, 0–0 Commonwealth Coast), a Division III team, by 65 points to tie a school record for margin of victory and defeating Alcorn State (1–6, 0–0 Southwestern Athletic) by a comparably modest 14 points. In Yale’s only other single-digit contest of the young nonconference season, the Bulldogs nursed a three-point halftime lead, but were outscored 44–33 by Albany (6–0, 0–0 America East) in the second half on Nov. 17, resulting in an 80–72 loss.
“Everyone’s getting better every day,” Oni said after Saturday’s loss to Vermont. “I feel confident that we’re going to keep improving. We lost today, but [the] coaches were proud of us that we stuck together and showed some grit down the stretch. We just have to get it all together by league play and keep it rolling.”
The Elis’ most recent four-game stretch served as a good litmus test for the state of the team after it was unceremoniously thrust into a brutal opening pair of games without two key contributors in guard Makai Mason ’18 and forward Jordan Bruner ’20. In its contests with Albany and Vermont, Yale proved competitive against two of the premier mid-major programs in the Northeast, while against Curry and Alcorn State, the Bulldogs handled their business against less-heralded opponents.
With Mason expected to remain sidelined through December, Oni has emerged as Yale’s undisputed offensive leader. Against Vermont, the sophomore enjoyed his best shooting performance of the season, hitting eight of 16 shots, including five makes from deep, for a season-high 26 points. Oni posted subpar shooting percentages from the field and beyond the arc in the Bulldogs’ first six games, but he found his stroke at home to put together an efficient performance.
But Yale failed to overcome its lack of size in its losses to Albany and Vermont. Under head coach James Jones, the Elis have prided themselves in being a strong rebounding unit that likes to play with a duo of traditional big men. However, they found themselves at a disadvantage down low against the two America East contenders.
Albany outrebounded Yale by 10, which allowed the Great Danes to open up a 16-point second-half lead, before the Elis drew within single digits toward the end of the game. Although Oni and guard Alex Copeland ’19 combined for 32 points, the two guards could not overcome the Bulldogs’ struggles defending and rebounding in the paint.
The same trend appeared against the Catamounts, whose pair of forwards, Anthony Lamb and Peyton Henson, combined for 41 points. Yale’s starters in the front court, Blake Reynolds ’19 and Paul Atkinson ’21, struggled with foul trouble as both were called for two fouls apiece midway through the first half, forcing Jones to alter his game plan.
Jones plugged in forwards Noah Yates ’18 and Wyatt Yess ’21 to fill the void, but was forced to shift to a 2–3 zone when Yates also picked up two fouls in the first half. Regardless of the defensive look he faced, Lamb proved especially difficult to guard, as he dropped 12 points in the second half.
“We have who we have, and we have to do a better job of [rebounding],” Jones said. “What Vermont [does] is they pack the paint, and they make it very difficult to get those opportunities. The length of Jordan [Bruner] we’ll miss, and that’s going to happen. But we have to do a better job of getting in position and chasing those balls.”
Against Curry and Alcorn State, Yale was able to mask its deficiencies in the paint with a three-point-heavy offense. Jones’s offense has been reliant on the three-ball all season, with 200 of the team’s 423 total field-goal attempts launched from behind the arc.
Guards Trey Phills ’19 and Azar Swain ’21 combined for 6–9 shooting from long range in the Elis’ 107–42 stomp over the Colonels. Swain led the team with 20 points on 8–12 shooting in just 22 minutes. He and Oni both connected on three treys against Alcorn State and were two of four Bulldogs in double figures in that contest, led by Oni’s 16 points.
“We have to hit threes for our team to win,” Oni said. “A lot of times I have to force some, because we’re supposed to get some [three-pointers] in the flow of our offense and sometimes it breaks down. … I think we’re getting better at getting everyone better looks from three. It’s part of our identity.”
With holes in Yale’s lineup due to the aforementioned injuries, Swain has been one of several new faces seeing substantial court time in Jones’s rotation. The former Gatorade Massachusetts Player of the Year has come off the bench and proven himself as an offensive sparkplug. In the front court, Atkinson has started every game of the early season, and Yess has served seen increased playing time, especially in the wake of a recent ankle sprain to fellow first-year forward Jameel Alausa ’21.
But the biggest new contributor to the Elis has been Yates, who walked onto the team a season ago after playing football at Yale in his first two years. Although Yates played sparingly in his first season, his role has grown to the tune of 19.7 minutes and 8.1 points per game this year. The senior was the first off the bench against Vermont and will likely retain his role if he can keep up his efficient shooting marks of 44 percent from deep and 53 percent from the field.
“When we’re good, it’s when everyone is staying in their role and doing what they’re best at,” Yates said. “If for me it’s shooting the ball from the outside, that’s great. I’ve been playing the power forward spot a lot this year, and I’m a little undersized. If some days I have to guard a bigger guy [and] be more physical with him, then whatever the role is for the game, everyone’s got to step up and do their part.”
The Bulldogs continue their nonconference slate with a road game tonight at Delaware. Tip off is slated for 7 p.m.
Won Jung | firstname.lastname@example.org
Steven Rome | email@example.com