Courtesy of Steve Musco
Yale men’s basketball will honor the program’s four seniors — guards Alex Copeland ’19 and Trey Phills ’19 and forwards Blake Reynolds ’19 and Thomas Ryan ’19 — before tipoff against Columbia on Saturday in the Bulldogs’ final regular season game at home this year.
But on Friday, the four seniors, alongside the rest of their teammates, might receive a better form of recognition. First-place Yale (18–5, 8–2 Ivy) needs just one win to clinch a spot in Ivy Madness for the third consecutive season. A victory over either Cornell (13–13, 5–5) or the Lions (7–17, 2–8) this weekend would secure a chance for the Elis to defend their home court when the Ancient Eight descend on New Haven for the high-stakes, two-day conference tournament.
“It’s hard to imagine what [my time at Yale would] be like without [our seniors],” guard Jalen Gabbidon ’21 said. “They’ve personally helped me adjust to the demands of college basketball, constantly giving me pointers and encouraging me to keep working hard on and off the court. Not only have they been great leaders on the court for our team, but off the court as well, gathering our team together as much as possible during breaks in our schedule to relax and genuinely enjoy each other’s company.”
The current senior class has contributed to 75 Bulldog wins in the past four years, leading the Elis to a 39–12 record in Ivy League play during that span. Yale’s Class of 2017, however, currently ranks as the most successful class in school history, having participated in 81 victories. Copeland, Phills, Reynolds and Ryan would need to send Yale to the NCAA Division I tournament for the second time in their collegiate careers in order to hit the 81-win mark.
Head coach James Jones launched into a long reflection on the senior class after last Friday night’s win over Dartmouth. Copeland, who averaged only 4.6 minutes a game in his first year as an Eli, scored his 1,000th career point in the second half of a 23-point performance against the Big Green. Like their classmate, Reynolds and Phills both played an average of less than eight minutes a game as freshmen before averaging over 23 as sophomores. The trio have been integral to every Eli game plan since.
“Because of the learning curve, it’s so hard for freshman to understand what we do,” Jones said. “That’s a hard sandwich to eat sometimes. And [Copeland] didn’t want to eat it, just like Trey didn’t want to eat it and Blake didn’t want to eat it, but as sophomores, they were able to step in, and we won 18 games that next year.”
To win at least six more games this season, Yale must end its conference slate with a four-game win streak and take both the semifinal and final at the Ivy League tournament in two weeks. Though Yale has beaten the Big Red in their past twelve meetings, Cornell would present the first challenge to that goal on Friday night.
The last bout between the Big Red and the Bulldogs saw Cornell’s prolific senior guard and NBA draft prospect Matt Morgan score 35, his third-highest single-game total of the season. Overcoming a six-point lead at the beginning of the second half, Yale maintained composure down the stretch, returning to New Haven with a 98–92 victory. Two big men, forwards Jordan Bruner ’20 and Paul Atkinson ’21, each had career nights. The duo combined for 45 points and managed to offset the 24 points Big Red forward Jimmy Boeheim added in his team’s losing effort.
Morgan, who shot 10 for 18 in his first meeting with the Bulldogs at Newman Arena, has scored in double figures in 77 straight games, an Ivy League record. Yale is expecting many NBA scouts in New Haven to take in the showdown between Miye Oni ’20 and Morgan.
“We haven’t introduced any new game plan to be honest,” Phills said. “Matt’s a good player and he found a rhythm and made some tough shots at home. We just have to make sure we’re more focused on playing better team defense to take away some of the opportunities for easy baskets that his teammates had.”
The Bulldogs take on Columbia one night later, who remains in last place despite defeating Penn on the road in overtime last weekend. Two weeks ago, when the Elis traveled to the Big Apple, they overcame an impressive late-game comeback from the Light Blue.
Led by senior guard Quinton Adlesh and his three straight triples, the Lions came roaring back from a 18-point deficit to tie the game at 62 apiece with a bit over six minutes remaining in the contest. Oni — who finished with a season-high five blocks — and Copeland helped the Bulldogs bark back, collecting consecutive defensive stops and combining them with clutch buckets to escape Morningside Heights with a tight 70–64 victory.
In addition to the stifling defense in the paint that proved to be essential in scraping out a win, Yale held Columbia’s star scorer, sophomore guard Gabe Stefanini, to 14 points on just 25 percent shooting. The Elis will look to do just the same when the Light Blue invade JLA Saturday night.
Yale has not dropped a game in the Cornell-Columbia home weekend for the past three seasons. Both tilts this weekend tip off at 7 p.m.
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