Marisa Peryer

ESPN’s Basketball Power Index gave the Yale men’s basketball team an 86.9 percent chance to win its Ivy Madness semifinal against Princeton, a team the Elis swept by a combined 36 points in two regular season meetings. A young Tigers squad, an eleven-point underdog coming into the game, travelled to New Haven with limited postseason experience, a concussed starting guard in Ryan Schwieger and, of course, no Devin Cannady.

Indeed, the second-seeded Bulldogs’ postseason experience paid dividends as the Elis (21–7, 10–4 Ivy) prevailed 83–77 in a thrilling second-half, but Saturday’s semifinal win over the No. 3 Tigers (16–12, 8–6) was far from easy. 60.6 percent first-half shooting propelled the Bulldogs to a 12-point lead at halftime, but when the Tigers stole momentum at the start of the second half, Yale needed all five of its veteran starters, three of whom struggled with late-game foul trouble, to overcome a second-half deficit and keep their NCAA tournament hopes alive.

 

“No, I’m a robot, I didn’t get worried,” head coach James Jones joked after the win. “We’re out here trying to fight for your lives and win a game, you’re up by 14 points and all of a sudden you’re down by seven. Yeah, I was a little worried. But at the same time, I had confidence at the three young men we have up here [Copeland, Oni and Reynolds], and I felt that at some point we were going to get on a run as we’ve done so often this year.”

Guard Miye Oni ’20, Ivy League Player of the Year, scored 23 points and facilitated Bulldog possessions down the stretch, complimenting his 15 second-half points with five assists and eight rebounds. Guard Alex Copeland ’19 added 16 points and the game’s most important assist, a three-point find for classmate, forward and captain Blake Reynolds ’19 who also finished with 16.

Yale ended the game on a 17–6 run, a late-game burst that sets up a rematch with co-champion Harvard in the Ivy Madness championship on Sunday afternoon. Tomorrow’s win-or-stay home match for the Bulldogs will mark the program’s second trip to the Ancient Eight championship in the past three seasons. It will also be the Elis’ first time facing Harvard since Crimson junior guard Bryce Aiken drilled a buzzer beater at the John J. Lee Amphitheater to give his team an 88–86 regular season win on Feb. 23.

Both the Bulldogs and the Tigers traded buckets in a relatively quiet opening to the second semifinal. Princeton’s star center Richmond Aririguzoh, who led the Ancient Eight this season with 2.8 offensive boards per game, scored 10 quick points and would dominate the paint for the entirety of the contest, grabbing eight rebounds and dropping 24 points.

A two-handed slam from guard Trey Phills ’19 brought the crowd to its feet with 14:58 to go before a three-pointer from Copeland swung momentum in favor of the Elis. Along with Phills’ jam, Swain’s side-stepping, leaning three-point bucket increased Yale’s separation. Crucial contributions from Swain as well as Reynolds helped the Elis build a 12-point lead after 20 minutes of play.

But Princeton amassed momentum early in the second half, launching itself back in the game and erasing the Bulldogs’ double-digit lead with shooting success that rivaled the Bulldogs’ 20-for-33 mark in the first half. Princeton forward Jerome Desrosiers hit a triple early in the period, and first-year guard Ethan Wright — who made only his sixth start of the season — drained another to decrease Yale’s advantage to six with a little over 18 minutes to play.

Princeton captured a 49–48 lead when first-year guard Jaelin Llewellyn pulled off a spin and layup — one of Copeland’s classic moves — on the Yale senior himself. The middle seeds would trade baskets for the rest of the game, which featured eight ties and six lead changes. Yale trailed 67–60 with just 5:33 to play.

Jones relegated Bruner, who picked up four fouls, to the bench with a little under ten minutes left in the game before re-inserting him at the 5:33 mark. Meanwhile, former Ivy Defensive Player of the Year Myles Stephens, who covered Oni closely throughout the night, fouled out with 3:10 to play, conferring the Bulldogs newfound energy. In his absence, Yale finished the game on a 17–6 run as Oni scored eight points in the final 190 seconds.

 

A layup from Yale’s junior wing tied the game at 72, igniting chants of “defense” from the hometown crowd. Free throws from Aririguzoh offset a Phills layup on the next possession before Reynolds finally broke the tie with a three-point swish from the top of the key. Copeland found his classmate after penetrating towards the basket along the baseline, drawing the Tiger defense towards the hoop before dishing Yale’s captain a dime.

“We got kind of stagnant early in the second half and allowed them to make that run and come back in the game,” Reynolds said. “On that last play, we set that high ball screen, and both guys went with Alex when he drove baseline. I was hoping he saw me out of the corner of his eye at the top of the key. He made a great pass and I was able to knock it down.”

The crowd remained on its feet as Yale returned to play defense. The rookie Llewellyn took the Tiger game into his own hands, driving past Copeland, laying the ball in with his right hand and cutting the Yale lead to one. As soon as Yale inbounded the ball to Copeland, Princeton fouled the senior and sent him to the charity stripe. The Elis converted all 16 of their free throw attempts, nearly breaking a program record of 17–17 free throw shooting the team set against Columbia last season.

Determined to bring the Tigers back into the contest, Llewellyn drove the lane again, this time fouled by Phills, who sent his shot flying into the bright, orange blazers of the Princeton band. After Llewellyn made only one from the line, Copeland sunk two more free throws. Princeton’s late-game heroics waned after consecutive misses from three-point range. Yale, commanding the glass late after a less-than-dominant second half, found itself still alive as the buzzer sounded. Flinging the ball towards the white JLA ceiling, Oni ran to his teammates to celebrate their six-point advantage in the nail-biting affair.

 

“I think it would be easy to sit here and say it doesn’t matter who we’re playing,” Copeland said. “When we signed up to come here and play for Yale and you could have told us that we would have one game in our building against Harvard to go to March Madness, that’s kind of a dream come true. I don’t think it could be written any other way. We’re going to come out with a lot of energy. Yeah, we don’t like Harvard.”

The Bulldogs now turn their attention to Sunday’s final, where the Crimson — which last fell to Yale in a 2017 Ivy Madness semifinal — and a shot at March Madness await.

William McCormack | william.mccormack@yale.edu

Cristofer Zillo | cris.zillo@yale.edu