Yale Athletics

Last March, the Yale men’s basketball team was within arm’s reach of the NCAA Tournament, losing to undefeated Princeton in the finale of the Ivy Tournament. Two graduated seniors and a torn meniscus later, the Bulldogs are hanging on with a 2–4 conference record, tied for sixth in the Ancient Eight standings.

Nevertheless, just a handful of decisive, end-of-game plays separates the current Bulldog team from its 2016–17 counterpart. Three of Yale’s four Ivy losses have come by three or fewer points, and, in its fourth defeat, head coach James Jones’s team trailed by only three points with 10 minutes of game time remaining. But the Elis’ pressing issue has been their inability to produce offensively down the stretch of close games. In pivotal moments across all of these losses, the Bulldogs have failed to replicate the ball-sharing and spacing on offense that got them so close to winning in the first place.

“Late in the game, teams are going to dig in defensively and make sure they’re in all the right spots,” guard Miye Oni ’20 said. “So spacing, movement and play calls are really important late in the game, [as well as] execution. [It’s about] not getting tense and letting the game come to us.”

Late-game execution haunted the Blue twice this past Friday against Princeton. After squandering a 10-point lead, the Elis had a chance to put the tied game away in regulation, but guard Trey Phills ’19 misfired on a 3-pointer as the clock wound down. The Tigers effectively closed up all driving lanes and forced a tough perimeter shot from the junior guard.

In overtime, forward Blake Reynolds ’19 missed an open look to tie the game from beyond the arc, and guard Azar Swain ’21 also had a failed 3-point attempt in the game’s final moments after collecting the offensive rebound. The Tigers ultimately prevailed 76–73.

“They played good defense at the end, and they hit some big shots,” guard Alex Copeland ’19 said following the overtime defeat. “They’re a really good team, and you have to give them credit. We felt like we played really hard [and] executed, but against a good team like that you’ve gotta make it happen in the final minutes. They did and we didn’t. That’s kind of the story.”

Unfortunately, that has been the story through much of the early conference season for Yale. After entering Ivy League play as the top team in assists, the Bulldogs have fallen to sixth in the category during conference play, with their assists-per-game average falling by a considerable 6.7 dimes. This lack of ball movement has proven especially damaging in close games as the Elis have at times fallen victim to a stagnant offense.

Moreover, Oni was expected to be the Bulldogs’ go-to scoring option this season. But the sophomore guard has fallen into a shooting slump in conference play. In his last five conference games, he has shot 17–62 from the field overall and broken 10 points just once, after scoring in double digits in his final 12 nonconference games.

Instead, Copeland has turned into Jones’s most reliable scoring option down the stretch. But many of Copeland’s scores come from his ability to break down a defender one-on-one and make tough shots, which becomes increasingly difficult as crunchtime approaches and defenses key in on isolation scorers.

At the beginning of the season, Jones was far from concerned about late-game leadership or execution in the backcourt. With Makai Mason ’18 set to return from a foot injury, he figured, the ball would be in the hands of the First Team All-Ivy guard and newly elected captain. In Mason’s last appearance, he played 40 minutes in Yale’s bid to upset Duke in the second round of the 2016 NCAA Tournament.

But this fall, as Yale fans know all too well, Mason suffered a setback and has yet to return to the court. Last Friday against Princeton, the guard was in shorts and peddling on the stationary bike during warm-ups but did not dress for the game.

Jones said that Mason was “getting closer,” and that “at some point, he’ll be on the court.” Although Mason has been doing the majority of his rehabilitation on his own, he recently has “started to blend into our practices,” Jones said.

An additional factor of uncertainty is Mason’s comfort as he resumes more regular basketball activities.

“It depends on how healthy he is,” Jones said. “Are you going to be nursing the foot, or is he 100 percent free to rock-and-roll? I have no idea. I’ll know that when he starts practicing every day and when he starts playing games … [But] if he’s healthy, and he can play to the level that he’s capable of, you’ll see him often and early.”

What is certain, however, is that Mason would provide instant relief for a team in need of a go-to option at the end of games.

In a deep conference that plays on back-to-back nights, close contests are a given. On Friday night, two Ivy tilts went to overtime, a third was decided by one point and the fourth was a significant upset. The league had no shortage of nail-biters the following night: The combined margin of victory in three of the four games was a mere eight points.

As the midpoint of the Ancient Eight season approaches and the jockeying for position in the conference standings intensifies, Yale can ill afford mishaps in the game’s final moments. Whether the answer comes from a rejuvenated Oni, a rehabilitated Mason or a breakthrough from someone else, the Bulldogs are all too cognizant of the question that stands between them and the top of the Ivy League standings.

Won Jung | won.jung@yale.edu

Steven Rome | steven.rome@yale.edu