Yale Athletics

The first time the Yale men’s basketball team faced Penn this season, a hapless Bulldog offense barely dented one of the Ivy League’s best defenses on its storied home court. The Quakers gave up just 50 points to the Elis, and the recently crowned conference champions controlled the game from first to final whistle.

The second time around, a similar fate seemed to be playing out in New Haven. The Quakers once again stifled the Elis and built an early 33–21 lead. At one point in the season, the injury-riddled Bulldogs might have rolled over.

Something, however, had changed.

A battle-tested Yale (16–14, 9–5 Ivy) team refused to back down, erupting for 80 points, including 10 in the last 30 seconds to rally and hand Penn (22–8, 12–2) just its second loss of the conference season and erase its chances of an outright league championship. Now, the stage is set for a dramatic rubber match to decide which team will move on to the finals of the second-annual Ivy League tournament. Come 3 p.m. this Saturday, the series will return to the Palestra, as Penn looks to defend its home court, where it has not dropped a single conference contest this season.

“We have to take it one game at a time, so we’re focusing it all on Penn right now and what we can do better,” guard Trey Phills ’19 said. “We ended up winning [last week], but there were plays that could have gone both ways a couple times. We definitely realize that we have to cut down on mistakes, but we saw where we can exploit them.”

Despite the higher stakes, head coach James Jones emphasized execution of the same basic game plan that he has preached all season, even when Yale fell to 2–4 to start the Ivy campaign.

Ball movement is one tenet of that plan, and the success of the Bulldogs’ spread attack often hinges on their success from 3-point range. In all but one of their conference losses, the Elis shot under 30 percent from downtown.

One of those losses came at the hands of Penn — the best defenders of the 3-point line in the league, holding opponents to 29 percent from deep. In the first meeting, Yale shot just 1–19 from beyond the arc; last week, guard Phills made four of his five attempts, but the rest of the team missed all 12 of its collective attempts.

The trade-off for Penn in its stifling perimeter scheme is that it is not able to help as much in the paint. This created one-on-one opportunities for forward Paul Atkinson ’21, who posted two of his top offensive performances of the season in the two matchups against the Red and Blue, with 20 and 17 points, respectively.

The most important basket he scored came in the final second at Lee Amphitheater, when he received a well-placed assist from guard Miye Oni ’20 and laid the ball in at the buzzer to give the Bulldogs their 80–79 victory.

Atkinson also factored in importantly on the defensive end in both games, corralling 13 rebounds for his only Ivy League double-double on Feb. 3 and tallying three blocks last week.

“We know their game — we played them twice [this season],” Atkinson said. “It’s tough coming into the Palestra to beat them after we just beat them last week, but I feel that if we come together to play our game there’s no way they can stop us.”

Still, it is difficult to imagine the Bulldogs knocking off the home team without a better performance from its perimeter players. Although guard Azar Swain ’21 made the pivotal play of the night — forcing a turnover with three seconds left to set up the Atkinson game-winner — he was silent from the field, missing all six of his attempts. The rookie sharpshooter has not made a single 3-pointer against the Quakers.

Guard Makai Mason ’18 — who has played just 21 minutes this season due to a series of injuries to his left foot — is doubtful for the weekend.

Jones expressed faith in his team’s shooting ability; his greater concern was perimeter defense. It was two key triples that sealed Penn’s victory at the Palestra, and in New Haven, the Quakers’ Caleb Wood lit up Boola defenders for five treys. As a team, Penn poured in 10 makes on 20 3-point attempts.

“I’m confident if we get good shots we’re going to make them, and if we run good offense we’ll make shots, so it’s a matter of us being able to do what’s necessary defensively and sticking to what our game plan is,” Jones said. “In the last game we did a great job of rebounding it … but they shot 50 percent from the field, and we gave up 79 points, so we have to do a better job defensively.”

In each of the first two matchups, Yale was able to keep one half of Penn’s All-Ivy frontcourt tandem of Ryan Betley and A.J. Brodeur under wraps; Brodeur went for just two points in game one and Betley was limited to five in game two. But the Quakers have never been a team to rely too heavily on one player.

Penn head coach Steve Donahue has the luxury of starting All-Ivy honorable mention senior point guard Darnell Foreman alongside his sophomore duo and has time and time again been the beneficiary of big-time production off his bench. Whether it come in the form of Wood or reserve guard Jake Silpe, who has played in limited minutes all season but was a catalyst for Penn’s first victory over the Elis, the Quakers’ system has cultivated team success over individual success.

The Quakers proved themselves to be vulnerable in late-game situations, blowing a seven-point lead with 2:38 remaining last weekend. Benjamin Franklin may be known for his aphorisms about frugality, but the school he founded was more than generous from the charity stripe, missing seven free throws in the second half. The Quakers are the worst free-throw–shooting team in the Ivy League, converting just 66 percent of their attempts.

Donahue may have been having nightmares about free throws since the Ivy Tournament last year, when Penn’s Matt Howard missed the front end of a one-and-one in the final minute that allowed No. 1 Princeton to tie the game and force overtime. The Tigers proceeded to win that game and defeat Yale the next day to secure the first-ever tournament crown.

Much has changed since that moment. While the Quakers did not even eclipse 0.500 last year, they are now the class of the Ivy League, and they will once again have most of the fans at the Palestra on their side. Yet it is Yale, perhaps more than any other team, that will arrive in Philadelphia with the confidence and momentum needed to make magic in March.

And that, according to Jones, is the beauty of the season-end tournament.

“We got off to a slow start — we lost three games by one, two and three points — and now we’re playing some of our better basketball, and we’re winning those games,” Jones said. “If this was 10 years ago, we wouldn’t have this chance — our season would be over, and I’d be focused on something else other than trying to win two games this weekend.”

Yale has won 10 of its last 12 games against Penn.

Won Jung | won.jung@yale.edu

Steven Rome | steven.rome@yale.edu