Four weeks into the Ivy League season, the Yale men’s basketball team owned a sub-.500 record through six games for the first time in James Jones’ 19-year tenure as head coach. More importantly, the Bulldogs’ 2–4 conference record had them on the outside looking in on the four-team, Ivy League tournament, held at the Palestra in Philadelphia.
But over their next six games, the Elis (14–14, 7–5 Ivy) came out victorious on five occasions, punctuated by their road sweep of Cornell (11–14, 5–7 Ivy) and Columbia (8–17, 5–7 Ivy) this past weekend to guarantee themselves a spot at the second annual conference tournament. On Friday, Jones’ squad made a furious comeback in the second half to upend the Big Red behind clutch shots from forward Noah Yates ’18. On Saturday, guard Miye Oni ’20 nearly recorded a triple-double to push the Bulldogs past the Lions and clinch a return to Ivy Madness.
“We were never really nervous about [making the tournament] as a team and as a coaching staff,” Jones said. “Six games in and with eight to go, we knew we had everything in front of us, and we felt we’d be able to get to where we are. Fortunately for us, we’ve been able to battle, and we’re happy about giving ourselves a chance to make some noise.”
The Bulldogs won both games without guard Makai Mason ’18. The captain made his long-awaited return to action against Harvard on Feb. 17, but suffered yet another setback to his oft-injured left foot in practice last Monday. Mason was not dressed to play for either game this weekend and sported a protective boot on his left foot.
Jones said Mason tweaked his foot after making a cut and said the point guard is “day-to-day again.”
Without Mason, Yates — who walked on to the team last season after two years with the football program — is the only senior who plays significant minutes for Jones. The most important of those minutes came at the tail end of Friday night’s contest at Cornell.
With forwards Blake Reynolds ’19 and Paul Atkinson ’21 both mired in foul trouble, Jones called Yates’ number, and the sharpshooter seized the opportunity. Reynolds, who set a career-high total of 20 points, fouled out of the game with two minutes remaining. Yates was in the midst of his own career performance — he shot 4–5 from the floor, including a key 3-pointer with 2:58 left to narrow Yale’s deficit to 74–72 — but the Big Red still were holding onto a narrow lead.
With Cornell leading 78–77 in the final minute, Oni drove to the basket, drawing a second defender. He kicked the ball out to the open man with a no-look pass, and Yates delivered a corner triple with 20 seconds on the clock for the game’s 20th, and final, lead change.
On the ensuing possession, guard Trey Phills ’19 channeled Yates’ football roots and intercepted a Cornell pass. He then swept in for an acrobatic reverse layup to give the Bulldogs a two-possession lead. The Elis eventually claimed an 82–80 victory.
Before the late-game heroics, it was Reynolds who got the Bulldogs’ offense going at both Cornell and Columbia. He hit three 3-pointers in the first half as part of a 12-point outburst on Friday, while the following night he pounded the paint for 11 first-half points. After a buzzer-beater from Yates, Yale went to the locker room with a 37–27 point advantage over the Lions.
Reynolds’s offensive resurgence bodes well for the Elis. The Missouri native suffered through a nine-game stretch during which he tallied double figures only twice, but he has surpassed that threshold in each of the last four contests.
“It’s really good when Blake can get some back-to-the-basket and post-move buckets, just because it opens up so much,” Phills said. “If you don’t double team him, he’s hitting a hook shot, and if you do, he’s a really good passer out of the post.”
Foul trouble slowed Reynolds down in the second frames of each game, but Yale’s depth and versatility paid dividends on both nights. Against Cornell, Phills led the charge and scored all 17 of his points in the final 20 minutes on 6–6 shooting from the field. Yale shot 66.7 percent from the floor in that span.
Oni picked up where Phills left off on Saturday night. After halftime, the sophomore erupted for 24 of his 26 points to tie a career high, proving to be unstoppable off the dribble. While Oni missed all three of his long-range attempts, he sunk all 10 of his free throws on a night when Yale did not miss a single attempt from the line. He also collected nine rebounds and eight assists, falling just short of a triple-double.
“I was really putting pressure on Columbia by driving to the basket,” Oni said. “They didn’t really have a great matchup, so I was trying to exploit that by driving to the rim and trying to drive up the foul count. Trey did the same thing from the wing, and Blake was doing it early inside. We just wanted to put pressure on them at the basket, where we knew we had the advantage.”
Similar to their first game against Columbia, the Bulldogs controlled most of the Manhattan affair, but the Lions did not succumb without a fight. Columbia drew within five points of the Elis as late as 37 minutes into the contest. However, Yale iced the game from the free-throw line to walk away with an 83–73 win.
Yale joined Penn, the current Ancient Eight leader, as the only teams this season to sweep Cornell and Columbia on the road.
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