MEN’S BASKETBALL: No. 2 Yale advances to March Madness with 97-85 win over No. 1 Harvard
Alex Copeland '19 facilitated a second-half run to help the Bulldogs overcome 38 points from Bryce Aiken
For just the second time in 57 years, Yale men’s basketball is off to the Big Dance.
In a 12-point victory over No. 1 Harvard (18–11, 10–4 Ivy) at John J. Lee Amphitheater on Sunday, the Bulldogs (22–7, 10–4) built a second-half lead with a 15–0 run to overcome 38 points from Crimson guard Bryce Aiken and persistent foul trouble for guard Miye Oni ’20. Guard Alex Copeland ’19, named the Most Outstanding Player at Ivy Madness, facilitated Yale’s second-period surge and scored a team-high 25 points to help crown the Elis as the 2019 Ivy League Tournament Champions. Oni added 17, guard Azar Swain ’21 scored 15 with stellar three-point shooting and Yale shot over 60 percent to extend an already memorable postseason run.
“There’s just so much going through my mind and my body after what we accomplished,” head coach James Jones, clutching a game net, said after the game. “Before the game, I took a copy of our first practice from this year — September 30th, 8:30 in the morning…Everybody was at practice early, ready to go, bright eyed and bushy-tailed. We started to build it from that point. To get to where we are right now, to realize your goals and what you set out to do, it’s really special. There’s 351 Division I basketball teams and they all want to be in the position that we’re in. It’s a coveted spot. It’s just an unbelievable feeling.”
Yale’s win sends it to March Madness for the fifth time in school history, the second time in Jones’ twenty-season tenure and the first time since the twelfth-seeded Elis upset fifth-seeded Baylor in the first round of the 2016 NCAA tournament. The Bulldogs netted 54 points in the second half against the Crimson to send their final total above 90 for the eighth time this year.
Coming in as the second seed, the Bulldogs were listed as the visiting team but Yale’s usual starting five drew on active support from the crowd. As its rival charged out of the entrance opposite theirs and stormed the friendly confines of JLA, Yale began the game focused and hungry for a tournament berth. Sticking to the usual early game plan, the Bulldogs tossed the ball into the paint and let the bigs muscle their way to six early points. With Harvard’s focus shifting to the interior, the sharpshooting Swain canned two jump shots from behind the arc less than 60 seconds apart.
Aiken, however, refused to let his team fall behind early and scored 21 points in the first half to lead all scorers. Using his shot-creating ability to slip his way in between the defense, he swished home multiple mid-range looks and a few deep-range bombs from well beyond the arc. His early offensive showing forced the Bulldogs to switch to a zone with forward Jordan Bruner ’20 up top, which provided added length to Yale’s shot-contesting efforts on the perimeter.
But with increased focus on Aiken, forwards Kale Catchings and Danilo Djuricic drilled shots from deep to cut into an Eli advantage that expanded to 31–21 with more than seven minutes to play in the half. Harvard took its first lead of the game thanks to free throws from Aiken with just over three minutes remaining in the period before buckets from Reynolds lifted Yale to a slim 43–42 advantage at halftime.
Referees charged Reynolds with a flagrant one foul early in the half, sending Catchings to the line for two free throw shots as the first year tied the game 43–43. Oni, meanwhile, was charged with his third foul of the game a little more than ten seconds later on an and-one drive by
Kirkwood in the paint. Jones called a timeout with a little more than 17 minutes remaining in the second after the Crimson extended its lead to 50–45.
“The game was tremendous, and I thought our guys did so much to stay together and play together and play the right way,” Jones said. “To come up with a victory, especially after the way the second half started — I don’t think it could have started better for Harvard than the fact that we got two of our starters with multiple fouls and to have that flagrant technical go against us.”
Kirkwood, who emerged as Aiken’s co-star in the second period, played extremely tight defense on Oni early, trailing him everywhere on Yale’s side of the floor. He poked the ball loose at one point, collecting the steal and racing down the court for a fast-break slam. With more than fifteen minutes to play, the officials hit Oni with his fourth foul of contest as the NBA prospect walked to the bench in frustration.
Yet even without the Ivy Player of the Year on the floor, the Bulldogs battled possession by possession with their Crimson counterparts. Swain hit his third triple of the game with a little more than 13 minutes to play, but Kirkwood responded with his own from the corner 15 seconds later. And throughout Oni’s absence, Copeland and guard Trey Phills ’19 attacked the rim, dishing passes to Atkinson, Bruner and Reynolds or finishing it strong themselves. The effort sparked a 15–0 run that allowed the Elis to maintain a cushioned lead throughout the second half.
“I was definitely visualizing even during the game, ‘Oh my god, what if they come back? I’m gonna cry so hard,’” Copeland said. “‘But if we win, I’m gonna cry so hard.’ Visualizing those moments has been going on for so, so long and to actually be here, to be talking right now and sitting next to all these guys feels so surreal.”
When Oni returned with roughly four minutes left in the game, his presence drew the attention of the Harvard defense which closed in around him, allowing him to find Bruner for a two-handed flush. With Yale in the bonus, the Elis continued to take it to the hole attempting to draw fouls and head to the line.
They promptly took advantage of nearly every foul shot bestowed upon them, shooting 44–46 overall from the stripe in Ivy Madness. Frustration fouls and half-hearted attempts from Harvard players dissolved any hopes of a comeback, much to the joy of the JLA crowd, who began to chant “This is our house!” in the direction of the opposite section donning red.
The Bulldogs – and Yale’s senior class – now return to a tournament they have dreamed of since upsetting Baylor in Yale’s first-ever NCAA win in 2016.
“I’ve been thinking about this day every day for the last two years since we lost to that good Princeton team [in the Ivy championship] our sophomore year,” Phills said. “It was nice to go as freshmen, but at the end of the day we realize we were just minor pieces of that. We really wanted to carry and lead a team and give these other guys the experience we had and were so fortunate to be a part of. I know I’ll sleep a lot better tonight than I have in the last couple days. It’s just good that we finally got it done.”
Yale will find out its NCAA tournament seed and opponent during tonight’s Selection Sunday show, which airs at 6 p.m. EST on CBS.
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