Yale Athletics

The adage is timeworn: There is no such thing as an easy win in conference play. The Yale men’s basketball team certainly experienced the veracity of this coaching cliche over the weekend, as it had to fight until the last minute to hold off both Columbia and Cornell.

With the home sweep, the Bulldogs (11–13, 4–4 Ivy) vaulted into a tie for third place in an Ivy League full of middling teams. In both games, the Blue profited from two integral parts of its program: effective ball movement and stellar play from guard Miye Oni ’20. Oni was everywhere this weekend, leading the team in scoring on both nights and tallying at least six assists and six rebounds in each game. Only eight of the team’s 56 baskets over the course of the weekend went unassisted, which brought music to the ears of head coach James Jones, as well as a harmonious rhythm to the on-court action.

Columbia (6–15, 3–5 Ivy) and Cornell (9–12, 3–5 Ivy) made the Elis work for their respective 88–84 and 74–65 victories, as the Lions and Big Red both pulled within two possessions in the games’ final minutes. However, timely free throws and clutch 3-pointers helped the hosts avert a loss that would have dealt a debilitating blow to their playoff hopes.

“I felt in control the entire game,” Jones said after Saturday night’s triumph over Cornell. “I never felt like we were out of control, and I felt like we were commanding the game, even when it got close. In that sense, I felt the same way last night [against Columbia]. I didn’t feel like we were ever going to lose the game.”

As crucial to Yale’s success as any player this weekend was guard Trey Phills ’19, who put on a dominant display on the defensive side of the ball. Phills routinely draws the toughest assignments, and this weekend he had to guard two of the Ivy League’s best scorers in Columbia’s Mike Smith and Cornell’s Matt Morgan.

Phills locked down both guards, holding them to 5–13 and 5–15 shooting, respectively. He secured Yale’s victory Friday night with a soaring weak-side block of Smith with seven seconds remaining. Morgan, meanwhile, stands atop the conference in scoring for the third straight year, but Phills — who matched up against Morgan during their high school days in the Charlotte, North Carolina, area — kept the nation’s eighth-best scorer to 13 points in spite of foul trouble.

“I was looking at how many shots [Smith] gets up,” Phills said. “He was averaging something like 17 [points] on 14, 15 shots a game, so I was really just trying to limit his easy ones and make sure he doesn’t get the ball back — if you try to get it out of his hands, he gets out of rhythm, and he just isn’t going to shoot as much.”

In concert with Phills’ smothering defense, the Bulldog offense was on top of its game. Jones emphasized the importance of spacing leading up to the weekend in an attempt to revive the Elis’ passing-oriented identity, and it certainly seemed to resonate with his players. After averaging 10.2 assists in their previous five Ivy games, Yale averaged 24 assists per game against their Empire State foes.

Oni was the main conductor of Yale’s symphonic offense, as he recorded 12 assists to just two turnovers in 66 total minutes of action. On the receiving end of many of these assists was guard Azar Swain ’21, who put together an impressive two-game stretch with 25 points on 7–12 shooting from deep. The sharpshooter found himself open time after time, as Oni and the rest of Yale’s playmakers drew in the defense before kicking the ball out to a waiting Swain.

“My teammates really opened up my opportunities,” Swain said. “A lot of my baskets were assisted, so I have to thank my teammates for that. [Our offense] came from our preparation throughout the week. We focused on sharing the ball, spacing on the court, and it really showed.”

The pace of play on Friday night was up-tempo, and the first half was an outpouring of offense for both Yale and Columbia. The Bulldogs jumped out to an early 11-point lead with five 3-pointers in the first seven-plus minutes, but the Lions roared back with a scorching shooting performance of their own. Led by reserve guard Gabe Stefanini, the team shot 61 percent from the field and made six of nine 3-pointers in the first half. Benefitting from the foul trouble of forward Paul Atkinson ’21, the Lions entered the intermission with a 47–45 lead.

The final 20 minutes proceeded along similar lines: Yale built a quick lead, and Columbia battled back into contention. Oni seemed to put the Lions away with the biggest of his five triples with under two minutes remaining, but Lukas Meisner banked in a heave to keep his team within three points. Guard Alex Copeland ’19 then converted four clutch free throws to seal the Boola victory.

Saturday night’s contest was not very different, as the Elis were clearly the better team for most of the game. Behind a quick start from Oni and a stretch of eight consecutive points from Swain, Yale opened a 30–16 first-half lead. But soon thereafter, Phills picked up his second foul as he tried to keep Morgan from cutting to the rim, and Cornell took advantage. The Big Red stormed back with a 10–0 run as the Bulldogs went scoreless in the final 6:49 of the half.

“[Trey] got in foul trouble early, and I thought that was part of the drought that we went on,” Jones said. “Sometimes your defense creates offense, and Trey on the floor as one of our upperclassmen is helpful. But he was just really good [on defense]. He was locked in, and he knows what his job is.”

But the better team prevailed in the end, as two dagger 3-pointers from Oni and Copeland pushed Yale’s lead from four points to 10 with just over two minutes to go. Copeland struggled through a tough weekend in which he shot just 3–12 from the field, but the junior guard ended both games on a high note with strong shooting in the clutch.

Yale will now prepare for two consecutive weekends on the road as it looks to solidify its top-four position in the conference standings.

Won Jung | won.jung@yale.edu

Steven Rome | steven.rome@yale.edu