Gil Talbot

The stage was set for a dramatic return: Yale-Harvard. Primetime television. An opportunity for a statement win.

For the first time in 55 games and almost two years, guard Makai Mason ’18 took the court for the Yale men’s basketball team. While Mason showed flashes of the playmaking brilliance that dazzled fans in the 2016 NCAA Tournament, his teammates came out flat against the physically imposing Crimson on Saturday night. The Bulldogs fell to their rivals 64–49, forgoing the chance to solidify their position in third place in the Ivy League standings after a blowout victory over Dartmouth the previous night.

“It was a little bit of a disappointment because I thought that we were better than we played against Harvard,” head coach James Jones said. “That’s disappointing when you don’t play your best. You’re not going to play your best every night, but we were brilliant [against Dartmouth]. I wish we could have carried that over, but now the game is over and we have to get back to our [style of] play.”

Mason came off the bench as guard Alex Copeland’s ’19 understudy, checking in at the 14:32 mark of the first half at Lavietes Pavilion. Two possessions later, he swished a 3-pointer from downtown. In 21 minutes of action, he scored eight points on 2–6 shooting and went 2–5 from the free-throw line.

The All-Ivy First Teamer had been sidelined for the past two seasons with multiple foot injuries, and several setbacks thwarted comeback attempts earlier this season. But before a national audience on Saturday night, Mason made his long-awaited return to the spotlight.

“It was a relief,” Mason said. “It felt good to be back competing with the guys. There were some ups and downs, but it’s nice to have the first one out of the way. We’ll go from here.”

Mason, however, seemed to be the only Bulldog who could consistently attack the basket. Harvard, led by the 6-foot-9, 235-pound Chris Lewis, locked down the paint all night and cut off driving lanes. Lewis had three blocks, though his teammate Justin Bassey had the most theatrical swat of the night, soaring from behind to reject a fast break layup from Copeland.

Lewis and the Crimson consistently outmuscled the Elis for loose balls and forced 10 turnovers in an anemic first half. Following Mason’s triple at the 13:30 mark, Yale did not score again for more than 10 minutes; in that time, Harvard built a 21-point advantage.

Jones quickly improvised his game plan, calling for double-teams on Lewis despite expressing wariness about that tactic heading into the matchup. The extra defender helped slow Lewis down, but he still finished with 18 points and 10 rebounds. The loss of forward Jordan Bruner ’20 to a season-ending meniscus tear loomed large as the team struggled to stymie Lewis.

Apart from Lewis, Christian Juzang provided several timely buckets to maintain the Crimson’s lead. The 6-foot-2 guard knocked down a demoralizing 3-pointer with the first-half clock winding down to end a cold spell of nearly three minutes for the Crimson offense. He later hit another deadly jumper from distance as Yale started to mount a comeback. He finished the rivalry affair with eight assists.

The Bulldogs came out rejuvenated for the second act and started to establish an offensive rhythm to chip away at their 20-point halftime deficit. They experienced their best offensive stretch of the game and pulled within nine points at the 13:04 mark. But a controversial blocking foul called on guard Trey Phills ’19 ended the run and returned the momentum to the Crimson.

The Elis’ last push of the evening came with under six minutes to go when a three from first-year guard Azar Swain ’21 brought the game within 10 points. Again, however, head coach Tommy Amaker and his team withstood Yale’s advances and held the Elis to just two points for the final 5:23 of the game to bring down the curtains on Yale.

“It was frustrating,” guard Miye Oni ’20 said. “We had several stretches where we could really have taken charge of the game. We had a couple layups go in and out. If a few of those drop and a few loose balls go our way, it’s a [different] game. We still got [their lead] down, but we just couldn’t finish it off.”

Yale didn’t have Mason on Friday night against Dartmouth, but it didn’t need him, either. Unlike Harvard, Dartmouth could not interfere with Jones’s ball-sharing offense, and the Elis assisted on 21 of their 28 buckets. Oni delivered a complete performance, notching 15 points, seven rebounds and five assists. The frontcourt of Blake Reynolds ’19 and Paul Atkinson ’21 combined for 30 points.

Dartmouth took the a 19–17 lead just before the 12-minute media timeout, but Yale finished the half on a 24–10 run and extended its lead to as much as 25 before the Big Green chipped away during extended garbage time to cut the final margin to 77–65.

“It was probably one of our best efforts of the year,” Jones said of his team’s win in Hanover. “It was beautiful the way we played on both ends. Our rotations were quick and fierce, and offensively, we moved the ball, shared it and made open shots.”

Another hectic week around the Ancient Eight allowed the Blue to maintain its spot in third. With two weekends remaining in the regular season, Yale sits just a game ahead of three teams vying for the final two spots in the Ivy League Tournament.

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