Ivy Madness came one week early for Yale men’s basketball fans.
With the No. 3 seed in the second annual Ivy League tournament already secured, the Bulldogs (16–14, 9–5 Ivy) did not have anything to play for in the conference standings this weekend. But the Elis were not satisfied. They strung together back-to-back statement victories against conference co-champion Penn (22–8, 12–2) and Princeton (13–16, 5–9) in the same type of tension-filled, down-to-the-wire games that had gone against them at the beginning of the season.
Head coach James Jones received big-time contributions from several veteran players such as Miye Oni ’20 and Trey Phills ’19 against two of the Ancient Eight’s top programs. But it was Jones’ role players, especially first years Azar Swain ’21 and Paul Atkinson ’21, who pushed the Elis toward victory in the weekend’s most crucial moments.
“I feel like we’re starting to build more chemistry, we’re playing with more fire and we’re just playing better in late-game situations,” Oni said. “We’ve had that experience, we’ve lost a couple close ones and we know what it takes to get those wins late in games. If we keep playing like this and have better 3-point shooting, we could be a real dangerous team come the tournament.”
The fraught final seconds against Penn on Friday night encapsulated the Bulldogs’ season. With three seconds left and a three-point lead, Penn fouled Yale rather than risking a game-tying 3-point attempt from the hosts. Oni made the first free throw to cut the deficit to 79–77 and intended to miss the second, hoping that his teammates could tip the ball back out to the Elis. But Oni, who had missed four free throws earlier in the game, made the second attempt, giving Penn the ball back with just three ticks on the clock and a one-point edge.
On the ensuing inbound, Swain — who shot 0–6 from the field — draped Darnell Foreman and deflected the ball off the senior guard out of bounds, giving Jones the opportunity to draw up a play to win the game. Unsurprisingly, the ball went to Oni, who drove to the basket and found Atkinson wide open for the game-winning layup.
“It wasn’t a productive game for me offensively, but I’m always there to do whatever they ask me to do,” Swain said. “I was willing to put my body on the line for the team, and I just made the right play.”
The referees ultimately put 0.3 seconds back on the clock — and the Quakers returned from the locker room after prematurely shaking hands with the Bulldogs — to make the thrilling 80–79 decision a formality.
Such has been the story for Yale this season. Championship dreams quickly went awry when two starters succumbed to major injuries, forcing Jones to rely on an inexperienced rotation from the outset. The Ivy season then began with a series of narrow losses, and the Blue fell below 0.500 through six games for the first time in Jones’ 19-year tenure.
But just as things seemed to be unraveling — as when Oni inadvertently made his free throw — gutsy play from the young roster rescued the season and sparked seven wins in the past eight games. The Bulldogs are where they always aimed to be: contending next week for the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament with the grit and confidence of a seasoned unit.
“Coach Jones told us that everything we want is in front of us when we went on a little skid earlier,” Oni said. “We listened to him, we dug down deep, we improved every day in practice and these are the results of that.”
Saturday night’s game against Princeton not only matched the previous night’s matchup in excitement but also figured as a fitting capstone to the Bulldogs’ trajectory this season. Once again, first years played the starring roles. And once again, the team made one more play than its opponent to seal a hard-fought victory.
Yale’s 94–90 overtime triumph over the Tigers was redemptive. Princeton had won its last four games against the Bulldogs and knocked them out in the Ivy Championship last March; with the win, however, the Elis eliminated their rival from the four-team tournament.
Moreover, Princeton had bested Yale in overtime earlier this season, after Oni fouled out and Swain made an ill-advised decision at the end of the game; on Saturday night, Swain scored 18 points off the bench, and Oni hit the decisive 3-point basket in the final minute for his first career win over the Tigers.
The Yale offense was something to behold this weekend, as it seemed to find its rhythm against two of the league’s top three scoring defenses. After crawling out of the gates against the Quakers to the tune of an 33–21 deficit, the Bulldogs shot over 50 percent from the field for the rest of the weekend.
Oni continued his masterful play and stuffed the box score with totals of 41 points, 21 rebounds and seven assists across the two games, while Phills and guard Alex Copeland ’19 took turns on Friday and Saturday night, respectively, with 24 and 16 points. Atkinson put together his best weekend of the season with back-to-back 17-point performances on a near-perfect 13–15 from the field.
“[It was about] just having a better mindset after last weekend,” Atkinson said. “It was a slow weekend for me, and coming out this weekend, I just wanted to keep a strong mindset, to make sure I don’t allow many points in the paint.”
This strong mindset from the first year seemed to rub off on his teammates, as the Bulldogs outrebounded Penn and Princeton by 20 and outscored them in the paint by 26.
Yale enters the Ivy League tournament this upcoming weekend as the No. 3 for the second consecutive year. The Bulldogs will play No. 2 Penn on Saturday at 3 p.m. at the Palestra.
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