In its first back-to-back conference weekend of the season, the Yale men’s basketball team split two highly competitive games that could not have been more different.
On Friday, the Elis (9–11, 2–2 Ivy) clawed back from an early 15-point deficit against Harvard (9–10, 4–0 Ivy) but could not hold on to the victory after leading with five minutes to go. The Crimson ultimately pulled away for a tense 54–52 triumph with a mix of strong defense and sound late-game execution. On Saturday, however, Yale found itself in the driver’s seat for most of the game against a resilient Dartmouth (4–13, 0–4 Ivy) team that succumbed in the final three minutes to give the Bulldogs a 74–64 victory.
Despite the different outcomes, the word “grind” seemed like the most apt description for both games.
“It’s going to be a grind, it always is,” head coach James Jones said after the Harvard loss. “We have to make the plays at the end of games, [and] this is two games in a row where we turned it over on key possessions down the stretch, which makes all the difference in the world. You have to be able to take care of the ball and get good shots. We’ve been working on situations in practice, [and] the last five minutes you have to dig in deep, make no mistakes and make the right plays.”
The weekend got off to an ominous start as the Crimson brought its vaunted defense into John J. Lee Amphitheater and built a 20–5 lead against the Elis, instantly quieting a sellout crowd. Harvard’s length and defensive energy stifled Yale’s offense, and early Bulldog misses off open looks from distance only intensified the pressure.
The Crimson fed off the strong first half performance by guard Corey Johnson, who poured in 11 points, including three makes from beyond the arc. When it was not Johnson from deep, it was forward Chris Lewis in the paint who used a complete array of post moves and counter moves to sustain the Harvard lead. Lewis finished the evening with a 16-point, 11-rebound double-double.
“The key for us was getting out to a quick start and really putting them on their heels a little bit,” Harvard head coach Tommy Amaker said. “They came back like you wouldn’t believe, so I was just really proud of our kids for showing the composure down the stretch that we needed to have. When we have good balance [offensively], we’re a pretty good basketball team, and I thought our defense was outstanding.”
Although the game was played at Harvard’s pace, Yale was able to methodically chip away at the Crimson advantage and eventually brought the game within one possession for the final six minutes of action. The Bulldogs showed a renewed defensive intensity after their slow start and only allowed Harvard to score 34 points in the final 32 minutes of the game.
At the 6:50 mark of the second half, guard Miye Oni ’20 forced a steal and fed the ball ahead to guard Trey Phills ’19 for an electrifying dunk to cut the deficit to two points. Two possessions later, Oni took the ball to the rack himself to give Yale its first — and only — lead of the night with just over five minutes left on the clock.
Neither team would make a field goal in the final five minutes until guard. Alex Copeland ’19 drained a cosmetic 3-pointer as time expired, but Harvard closed out the game on the free throw line.
Harvard guard Justin Bassey proved to be the difference-maker down the stretch on both ends of the floor. He drew a crucial foul beyond the arc and made all three foul shots to put the Crimson ahead 52–49 with 2:11 to play, and with under five seconds to play, he blocked Oni’s game-tying 3-point attempt to thwart Yale’s comeback bid.
The pace of play on Saturday against Dartmouth was similarly halting, and the Blue once again started slow. Part of Yale’s difficulties stemmed from the game-time decision to pull forward Blake Reynolds ’19 from the lineup due to a strained hamstring that he suffered while stretching before the Harvard game.
Dartmouth outrebounded the Bulldogs 34–27 and was especially effective on the offensive glass, with Aaryn Rai grabbing five offensive rebounds alone. Jones opted for a four-guard starting unit, and forwards accounted for just six of the team’s 74 total points.
“I found out right before the game that Blake wasn’t going to play, and they changed their starting lineup to go bigger, which I didn’t anticipate, so we stayed with our starting lineup,” Jones said. “It hurt us a little bit on the glass. We were fortunate that on second-chance points they were only able to get nine. I suspect that we’ll get Blake back in the lineup, and we’ll get back to rebounding the ball like we’re supposed to.”
Without their veteran forward, the Bulldogs relied more heavily on the backcourt combination of Copeland and Phills. Phills notched 11 of his 17 points in the first half and contributed nine rebounds. Copeland then ignited the offense in the second frame with 17 points in the final 20 minutes for a game-high total of 25.
But the gritty Big Green — which pushed Harvard to overtime and lost to Brown on a buzzer-beater — continued to exert pressure on the Elis. Dartmouth cut the margin to just three points with 2:49 remaining, but Phills and Oni connected on two momentum-changing 3-pointers to reopen the lead. In an encouraging sign for Yale, Oni hit three shots from long range in the second half to shake the memory of the previous night’s 3–13 performance.
“A game like [Friday night] hurts, especially against a rival,” Copeland said. “But like coach always says, the beautiful thing about the Ivy League is that we have a chance to go right back at it tomorrow with the back-to-back. We were happy to be able to get that bad taste out of our mouths.”
With the 1–1 weekend, the Bulldogs remained at .500 in conference play, tying them with Brown for the fourth and final spot in the conference tournament with 10 games to play.
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