Steve Musco

The Yale men’s basketball team entered the Ivy League season carrying the baggage of an injury-riddled and inconsistent nonconference season. Questions lingered about the status of guard and captain Makai Mason ’18, the team’s reliance on 3-pointers and its inability to knock off any of its premier non-league opponents.

On Friday night, the Bulldogs (8–9, 1–0 Ivy) dispatched Brown (7–7, 0–1 Ivy), 78–72, at John J. Lee Amphitheater to open their Ancient Eight campaign — but they are still far from resolving the uncertainties about their potential to improve on last season’s second-place finish and win the Ivy League tournament.

After a scorching start to the game, the Elis struggled to close the Bears out, falling into foul trouble in the second half. In a game that featured 48 fouls and 37 turnovers, Brown had plenty of chances to exploit Yale’s mistakes but misfired on 13 free throws. An offensive foul by guard Eric Monroe ’20 with 37 seconds to play gave the Bears an opportunity to tie the 73–71 game, but guard Miye Oni ’20 stole the ball with 11 seconds remaining to secure the victory and allow the Bulldogs to finally exhale.

“We are certainly a work in progress,” head coach James Jones said. “But we are getting there. I look at the teams around the league, and I don’t think there’s much difference between us and anybody else in our conference. From that standpoint, I think that we have a chance to be where we want to be come the end of the season.”

Yale played once again without Mason, who last saw the court in the 2016 NCAA tournament and has since suffered multiple foot injuries. Jones had initially said he expected Mason to return this season for the first Ancient Eight contest. Mason is expected to return later in the regular season, but Jones told the News he did not know when.

Nevertheless, the Elis have ample experience playing without Mason, and on Friday night it was guard Trey Phills ’19 who led the charge from Yale’s backcourt. Phills, known more for his defensive prowess than his offensive arsenal, played the best game of his career, putting up 23 points, seven rebounds and five assists, including 10–10 shooting from the free throw line.

“I was just a little bit more aggressive than usual on the offensive end, and I just got put in positions to make easy plays that developed from hustle,” Phills said. “I was able to get into a groove from the free throw line which was nice. That’s usually a good sign of how I’m playing if I’m knocking down free throws, and everything else just falls in place for me.”

The conference opener was of added significance for Phills as Jan. 12 marked the 18-year anniversary of the passing of his father, Bobby Phills, who was 30 years old and playing in the NBA at the time of his death.

Phills started the first 10 games of the season before Jones reconfigured his lineup and elevated Monroe to the starting five on Dec. 6. But with guard Alex Copeland ’19 recovering from an ankle injury, Phills once again got the nod to start in late December and scored a career high against Brown.

With active hands on defense and a revamped offensive approach, Yale jumped out to a 14–3 lead against the Bears. Whereas the team had relied on outside shooting throughout much of the first part of the season, the Elis repeatedly drove to the basket and created opportunities through penetration and a decisive size advantage inside with forwards Paul Atkinson ’21 and Blake Reynolds ’19.

“One of the main things we wanted to do was control the paint against them,” Atkinson said. “They’re a smaller team, so we knew we had to dominate the paint if we wanted to win the game.”

But the Bulldogs struggled to close the door on a feisty Brown team that was able to withstand the hosts’ hot offensive start. Spurred by 60 percent shooting from the field in the first half, Yale led by as many as 14 points but only held a 42–37 advantage at halftime.

Copeland and Oni combined for 20 first-half points on 8–15 shooting, as the Bulldogs outplayed Brown for the majority of the first half. But 15 points from the Ivy League’s second-leading scorer, Brandon Anderson, allowed the Bears to stay within arm’s reach. While Yale boasted first-half advantages in rebounds, assists and points in the paint, Brown made up the difference from the free-throw line and behind the arc.

A sloppy, foul-filled second half set the stage for a down-to-the-wire finish, as neither side led by more than seven points in the final 20 minutes. Brown took its first lead of the game just over four minutes into the second half, but 3-pointers from Reynolds and Phills helped Yale regain a 57–50 lead.

With 10 minutes to play and both teams in the bonus, however, the pace of play slowed down considerably. Anderson and rookie guard Desmond Cambridge steered the Bears’ offense, with Cambridge draining a shot from beyond the arc to cut Yale’s lead to three with under a minute remaining. But the visitors missed two crucial free throws in the final minute, and Oni’s steal secured the victory.

Yale has now won seven straight contests against Brown and will look to push its streak to eight next week in Providence.

Won Jung | won.jung@yale.edu

Steven Rome | steven.rome@yale.edu