Destiny is on the mind of the Yale men’s basketball team.
With a one-game lead for third place in the conference standings and just two weekends remaining, the Bulldogs (12–14, 5–5 Ivy) control their fate — at least with regard to the four-team Ivy League Tournament. Despite what has been a whirlwind season thus far, the stars seem to be aligning at the right time: First-Team All-Ivy guard Makai Mason ’18 is back in action after nearly two years of injury trouble. Yale will have the opportunity this weekend to create separation from Cornell (10–13, 4–6) and Columbia (7–16, 4–6) before concluding the season at home.
Even so, the course of the Ancient Eight campaign has reiterated a classic coaching lesson: Nothing is preordained. With both the Big Red and the Lions playing for their seasons in front of home crowds, the Elis have little margin for error if they want to maintain their privileged position in the playoff hunt.
“The one thing that [head coach James Jones] tried to make clear to us is that our destiny is now in our hands,” guard Alex Copeland ’19 said. “We have to beat some teams to get to the tournament, but it’s very doable for us, and just knowing that it’s in our hands is a good feeling — but you also have to be focused and ready to handle it.”
The Blue’s game plan revolves around containing Cornell’s formidable star power, just as it did two weeks ago when Yale topped the Big Red 74–65. Junior guard Matt Morgan is once again leading the conference in scoring, and his 22.6 points per game place him ninth in the country. Meanwhile, junior forward Stone Gettings ranks fifth in the league in scoring and boasts an arsenal of interior moves in addition to range from 3-point territory.
When the two teams faced off the first time, however, guard Trey Phills ’19 “smothered” Morgan according to Jones, holding him to 5–15 shooting and just 13 points.
“[Morgan] has a great reputation in the league, so it’s not really hard to get motivated for a guy like that,” Phills said. “You know the level of preparation it takes and that the game is the end product of the preparation we do.”
Last Friday, Morgan eclipsed his top scoring mark in conference play this season with 31 points in 51 minutes to cap off what could be remembered as a turning point for the Big Red program: a triple-overtime, come-from-behind victory over Princeton, the reigning league champions, after trailing by as many as 22 in regulation.
Cornell has not finished at 0.500 in Ivy play since 2012, but with the advent of the conference tournament last year, it now has a legitimate shot to contend in the postseason.
To expect Phills to hold Morgan to 13 points for a second time this season may be asking too much of the junior guard. But what really helped the Elis beat Cornell the first time around was their stellar team defense; Yale limited the Big Red to 43.1 percent from the field and 25 percent from three.
Following their trip to Ithaca, the Bulldogs will journey to Manhattan to face the Lions, who almost upset the Elis at home just two weekends ago. Although Jones felt his team was in control throughout the entirety of the first matchup, Columbia made the contest much closer than it should have been down the stretch.
Behind an offensive outburst of 17 points from reserve guard Gabe Stefanini, the Lions drew within two possessions in the final minutes of the game, even though Phills shut down star point guard Mike Smith. The Columbia fixture was more of a back-and-forth shootout than the Cornell contest one night prior, but the Eli offense was up to the challenge.
Across both games, Yale tallied an astronomical 48 assists and seemed to find its groove on the offensive end. The Bulldogs continued this trend last weekend in Hanover when they trounced Dartmouth in their best conference performance of the season, but they were stifled the next night against Harvard’s league-best defense. Nevertheless, the Bulldogs remain confident that they will recapture their offensive flow.
The need to put opponents away will be as important as ever for Yale this weekend in hostile road atmospheres. Throughout the season, Jones has stressed the importance of his reserves in defeating teams on the road when starters are refueling.
“[The bench] has to step up and has to just come into the game with great energy,” forward Noah Yates ’18 said. “It’s hard for the starters to play however many minutes in a row, and when we’re able to enter the game, it’s huge for us to come in the game with great energy, play defense and know what we’re doing. When that happens, it’s a great boost, and it keeps everyone going.”
The most important player to come off the bench last Saturday was Mason, who worked back into practice this week on a limited basis as he attempted to regain his basketball stamina. The point guard’s poise could prove essential for the Elis in combatting Cornell’s full-court pressure and aggressive zone defense.
As a playmaker, Mason offers light-speed quickness in attacking the rim, which created options for his teammates off the dribble against Harvard. Though he at times appeared rusty, he injected a surge of optimism into a team at the most crucial time of the season. For the Bulldogs, Mason’s first small steps back on the court could portend a giant leap for the program come March.
“The great thing about [Mason] is that he’s the easiest guy on the team to play with,” Yates said. “Whether he hasn’t been playing for a year or not, it’s just like I’ve been playing with him my whole life. The way he sees the floor … he helps us in every aspect of the game.”
Yale will tip off against Cornell on Friday at 7 p.m. before heading south to face Columbia at 8:30 p.m. on Saturday.
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