In one week’s time, the Yale men’s basketball team will arrive in the hallowed confines of the Palestra for the second-annual Ivy League Tournament. But the road to Ivy Madness first winds through New Haven, as league-best Penn and on-the-bubble Princeton will take on the Bulldogs at John J. Lee Amphitheater to conclude the regular season.
Penn (21–7, 11–1 Ivy) has been the top team in the conference all season, and in prior years it would have an inside track at securing the Ancient Eight’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. But with the advent of the four-team playoff, the door is open for teams like Yale (14–14, 7–5) to peak at the right time and knock off the favorites. Since losing to both Penn and Princeton (12–15, 4–8) on the road, the Elis have won five of six games, and a home sweep could infuse the team with the confidence and momentum needed to string together upset victories next weekend.
But the Bulldogs must first focus on the task at hand. The Quakers held Yale to 50 points in their first meeting and bested Harvard one week ago to seize sole possession of first place. Meanwhile, Princeton — still in the mix for the fourth seed in the tournament — will no doubt play inspired, hoping to regain its footing after ending a seven-game losing streak in its win over Dartmouth last weekend.
“We’re trying to take it one game at a time, not trying to get ahead of ourselves too much by thinking about the tournament,” forward Noah Yates ’18 said. “We’re playing some good basketball right now, and we’re excited about that … Penn’s at the top of the league right now, and Princeton is very dangerous. They haven’t been winning a bunch of games, but they’re still going to come in here and give us their best.”
Penn is no stranger to getting hot at the right time. A year ago, the Quakers started the Ivy League season 0–6, but then went on a 6–2 tear and snuck into the inaugural Ivy Madness bracket. Madness it was, as the hosts — starting three rookies — led undefeated Princeton for the entirety of their matchup. A late-game surge from the Tigers sent it to overtime and ultimately tilted the affair in Princeton’s favor.
Only one player graduated from that team, and this year the Quakers are no underdogs. Head coach Steve Donahue has a deep roster at his disposal, headlined by the sophomore tandem of Ryan Betley and AJ Brodeur. Although the Bulldogs previously slowed down Brodeur by forcing the big man to take perimeter jump shots, forward Max Rothschild picked up the slack and dominated in the paint with an array of post moves and kick-outs.
Four players scored in double figures for Donahue in the Feb. 3 matchup, but it was an unlikely role player, guard Jake Silpe, who knocked down the biggest shots of the night to help Penn pull away. Silpe hit two consecutive 3-pointers to keep the Elis at bay during their run in the second half.
Still, it was not Penn’s balanced offense but rather its stifling defense that earned the Quakers a victory over Yale. Penn was able to limit the penetration of guards Alex Copeland ’19, Miye Oni ’20 and Trey Phills ’19 with seamless switching and hedging on perimeter screens to neutralize the Elis’ attack.
“We’re a team that figures out a way to win the game,” Donahue said after the game. “That’s the only way I can say it.”
With the status of guard Makai Mason ’18 still uncertain — he returned from injury two weeks ago before tweaking his foot again in practice and missing the past two games — guard Miye Oni ’20 has shouldered much of the offensive burden throughout the season, hoisting more shots per game than anyone else on the team. Guard Trey Phills ’19 has blossomed as a scorer in conference play, however, leading the team with 13.3 points per game.
But head coach James Jones’ offense is at its best when the team is sharing the ball and spreading the floor — which often arises through Oni’s penetration. But in Yale’s first meetings with both Penn and Princeton, Oni was limited to six points apiece and three total assists on a combined 5–21 shooting from the field. The Elis will need more from their star guard if they hope to enter the conference tournament with a legitimate shot at the crown.
Against Princeton the first time around, Oni put up just seven shots and fouled out in an overtime fixture. With the sophomore struggling to generate much offense, Copeland, Phills and forward Blake Reynolds ’19 each tallied at least 15 points to keep Yale in the game until the very end. But these efforts were not enough as the Tigers took advantage of late-game miscues from the Bulldogs to improve to 3–1 in conference play.
Princeton has since gone 1–7 and finds itself one game out of the final spot in Ivy Madness. Nevertheless, the Tigers still have a shot at making it back to the Palestra and will be playing in New Haven with their season on the line.
“We want to come out and compete and show that we can beat those guys,” Oni said. “We haven’t beaten Penn or Princeton the past two or three times we’ve played them, so we definitely want to send a message and beat those guys.”
Yale will first play Penn on Friday at 7 p.m. before playing its final home game of the season against Princeton at 7 p.m. on Saturday, which will double as Senior Night for the class of 2018.
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