Following a week of sightseeing in Shanghai, Hangzhou and Suzhou, the Bulldogs overcame early issues with foul trouble and ball control to clinch a 76–59 win against the University of California, Berkeley in the Pac-12 China Game.
Yale’s win marked the first time a Pac-12 team has fallen in its opening China Game, which draws student-athletes from a rotation of Pac-12 schools and another NCAA team to China for a week of cultural exchange and educational experiences. Launched in 2015, the basketball contest — the flagship event of the weeklong festivities — is a season opener for both teams in front of 4,000 Chinese fans and a national television audience. The matchup remains the only regular-season game played by a U.S. sports league, whether professional or collegiate, in China.
“There was some nerves to start on both teams,” head coach James Jones said during the postgame press conference. “It took awhile for us to get comfortable on the offensive end. We were doing a good job defensively of getting stops and rebounding, and then once we saw the ball go in the basket a few times we settled down and got into more of a rhythm offensively.”
Midway through the first half at the Baoshan Sports Center, guard Azar Swain ’21 drained a contested three-pointer to put the Elis up 11–9, ending a painful 10-minute stretch in which Yale accumulated eight turnovers, eight fouls and only eight points. Swain later earned recognition as the Alibaba Group Player of the Game after scoring 16 total points, including four three-pointers, alongside six rebounds and four assists.
Swain’s three pointer and a monstrous block by forward Jordan Bruner ’20 on Cal’s next possession ignited a 15–0 run that propelled Yale to the win.
By the end of the first half, Yale had suffered 12 turnovers and 14 fouls, and starters Miye Oni ’20 and Paul Atkinson ’21 spent most of the first half on the bench with three fouls each. Despite having no players foul out of the game, Yale ended the contest with 29 total personal fouls, the most the team has committed since Nov. 21, 2012, when the Elis also picked up 29 fouls in a 65–52 loss to Vermont.
A charge early in the second half sent Oni back to the bench with 17:43 still left in the game. He ultimately played only 16 minutes, the fewest of his collegiate career and about half of the 31.7 minutes per game he has averaged over his first two seasons with the Bulldogs. But when he was on the court, Oni demonstrated scoring ability that has intrigued NBA scouts, contributing 16 points and shooting three for five from beyond the arc.
Bruner, playing in his first game since the 2017 Ivy League Championship, started for Yale and played 25 minutes, the third-most of any Eli. A white wrap engulfed his left knee, but the six-foot-nine forward appeared fully recovered from the meniscus tear that sat him out all of last season as he collected a team-high eight rebounds.
“It was amazing, I’ve been playing basketball for a while, but this was my first real game,” Bruner said. “Before everything started, the passion was just overflowing. I just wanted to spread that with my team and pick up our energy.”
Bruner’s presence anchored the Bulldog defense, which limited Cal to a 35.3 field goal percentage, including a poor 20 percent shooting mark in the first half. Guard Trey Phills ’19 added a game-high three steals. If not for Cal’s constant trips to the foul line, Yale would have expanded its lead significantly. Twenty-one of the Golden Bears’ 59 points were scored from the charity stripe.
Cal sophomore Justice Sueing, who led the team in scoring last year with 15.8 points per game, did not net his first point until the second half, while fellow sophomore Darius McNeill, who broke the program’s first year three-point record last season, did not make a shot in 32 minutes. Together, McNeill and Sueing combined to shoot an abysmal 3–22.
Yale, meanwhile, shot 48 percent from the field and converted 43 percent of its three-point attempts, enjoying varied contributions from a group that proved its depth against Cal. Nine players scored, including forward Thomas Ryan ’19, whose second-half corner three drew a big reaction from the Bulldog bench. First years Matthue Cotton ’22 and Isaiah Kelly ’22 combined for 20 minutes, beginning their Yale careers off the bench in the first half as Oni and Atkinson sat with foul trouble.
Following the win, Alibaba co-founder Joe Tsai ’86 LAW ’90 — who took in the contest courtside with Yao Ming and coordinated many of the week’s activities — treated the team to a reception at the Ritz-Carlton. A Saturday night river cruise anchored the group’s memorable week abroad, and Yale returned to the United States on Sunday.
“It’s a really, really big opportunity for our team to get to come over here and play in such a high-level, high-stakes game,” forward and captain Blake Reynolds ’19 said. “I think it’s going to be really good for us going forward.”
After a couple days of rest, Yale will focus its attention on the American Athletic Conference’s Memphis Tigers, whom the Bulldogs will play this Saturday night at 8 p.m.
William McCormack | firstname.lastname@example.org