William McCormack

With six games remaining in Ivy League play, Yale men’s basketball has barely hit the halfway point of its conference schedule. But the Bulldogs — who continue to sit atop the Ancient Eight standings— are already generating postseason buzz.

After a 70–64 Yale (17–4, 7–1 Ivy) victory over Columbia (6–16, 1–7) Friday night, reporters in a stuffy, second-floor Manhattan media room peppered head coach James Jones, guard Miye Oni ’20 and guard Alex Copeland ’19 with questions that forced Yale to think far beyond Friday’s final score.

The following night, the Bulldogs prevailed 98–92 in a scoring battle against Cornell (13–11, 5–3), extending Yale’s win streak to five and bringing them one win closer to Ivy Madness. But as guard Trey Phills ’19 told the News last week, the Elis are treating each weekend as a “must win.” Close victories over last-place Columbia and a star-powered Cornell squad prove that in this season’s deep Ivy League, maintaining a focus on each half is key to Yale’s sustained success.

“We feel like every game going forward is a very winnable game for us,” Oni said. “If we play the right way and play how we’re supposed to, we should win every game going forward. We’re just taking it one game at a time and trying to get a win every game we play, play hard every time we step on the court no matter who the opponent, and then get ready for the tournament after the league season’s over.”

In both games this weekend, the Lions and Big Red challenged Yale with big runs, but as they have all season, the Elis’ depth and veteran talent allowed the Bulldogs to fight past foul trouble and sudden second-half deficits. Oni led the Bulldogs with 40 points, 12 rebounds and seven blocks across two games, Copeland scored 19 against Columbia and Yale’s bigs stepped up Saturday against Cornell. Forward Jordan Bruner ’20 contributed 22 points and eight rebounds in Ithaca, while forward Paul Atkinson ’21 tied his career high in scoring with 23 points off the bench and contributed a game-high ten rebounds.

Despite both teams combining for 17 first-half turnovers, Yale’s talent on both sides of the ball allowed the squad to build an 18-point second-half lead over the Light Blue with 12:44 to play on Friday night. The Bulldogs limited the Lions to a catastrophic shooting performance in the first half, as Columbia shot a measly 1–10 from beyond the arc; however, riding the momentum inside its crowded Levien Gymnasium and taking advantage of complacent play from the Elis, Columbia suddenly starting hitting shots. Behind three straight triples from senior guard Quinton Adlesh, who finished with a game-high 23 points, Columbia came all the way back to tie the game at 62 with just under three minutes to play.

Refusing to concede a victory to the Ancient Eight’s worst team, Yale, led by both Oni and Copeland, mustered up clutch defensive stops and big buckets to escape the Big Apple with a tight 70–64 win, sending the loud New York crowd home to digest another loss.

“As a point guard and especially as a senior, I’ve learned a lot and just tried to be a leader and carry myself with poise,” Copeland said. “The coaches having confidence in me and my guys having confidence in me makes things easy. [I’m] trying to be steady — when we have games like this, and teams make a run, trying to just stay composed.”

Coming into Saturday’s tilt against the Cornell Big Red, the Elis knew they would have their hands full attempting to shut down star guard Matt Morgan, who currently ranks 10th in NCAA Division I men’s basketball with 23.6 points per game. Despite keying in on the Ivy League’s premier offensive talent, Yale allowed Morgan to drop 35 points on 10 for 18 shooting. He also notched three steals, two assists and six rebounds to compliment an impressive scoring night, his fifth game with more than 30 points this season and his 75th consecutive in double figures.

Yet in front of more than 3,000 upstate New York fans — and what Jones called the best Cornell crowd he had seen in nine years —  Yale managed to overcome Morgan’s offensive outburst with scoring of their own. The Bulldogs, who lead the Ivy League with 81 points a game, scored more than 90 points for the sixth time this season. Both teams shot over 52 percent from the field and at least 45 percent from downtown.

Yale’s dominance on the boards was also key to the six-point victory. Outrebounding the Big Red 38–27, the Bulldogs scored 16 second-chance points and a remarkable 54 points in the paint. Captain and forward Blake Reynolds ’19 played only 20 points after getting into foul trouble, but Atkinson replaced him with key minutes, clutch putbacks and 9–13 shooting. The Bulldogs improved to 16–1 when outrebounding opponents this season.

Yale also proved they could handle significant Big Red scoring runs throughout the game. Cornell jumped to an 8–0 lead in the game’s first two minutes and started the second half similarly, turning a 45–38 Yale lead at halftime into a 57–51 Big Red advantage following a 17–7 run. Jones called timeouts after both, and Yale regained the lead within three and a half minutes after each break.

The past two games showed that Yale can rely on any member of its veteran core to close out games. Less than nine points decided all eight Ivy matchups this past weekend, with four being decided by less than four points, and Yale’s skill in controlling close games has separated the Elis from the rest of the Ancient Eight.

March is still two weeks away, but the Bulldogs are showing that they are prepared for the madness to begin.

“Our seniors have gone to the tournament once, they know what that experience is like, and our juniors are really good players,” Jones said. “And then we play two other sophomores that are really good players at this level, so we have a really good team. The message going forward is just do what we do. Our job is to defend, rebound and share the ball, and if we do those things, we’re really good.”

William McCormack | william.mccormack@yale.edu

Cristofer Zillo | cris.zillo@yale.edu