Steve Musco

Yale men’s basketball began the 2018–19 season almost 8,000 miles from its own John J. Lee Amphitheater at the Baoshan Sports Center in Shanghai. After tallying wins everywhere from China and Cornell to Miami and the Matadome, the Elis ended the year exactly where they hoped — not at home in New Haven, but at the 2019 NCAA tournament.

In between, the Bulldogs (22–8, 10–4 Ivy) captured an Ivy League regular season title, attained their first Ivy Madness crown and won 22 games in one of the most successful seasons in school history. After losing former guard Makai Mason ’18 and Jordan Bruner ’20 to long-term injuries in recent years, Yale capitalized on a season in which its corps of key contributors nearly always remained healthy. Great depth off the bench complimented a starting five — guards Alex Copeland ’19, Trey Phills ’19 and Miye Oni ’20 and forwards Blake Reynolds ’19 and Bruner — that provided veteran leadership after tip-off, experience down the stretch and the highlight-reel blocks and finishes that made the Elis so fun to watch along the way.

“We started on a high note and have been fairly consistent throughout the year,” Phills said before his final game in the Blue and White against LSU. “There have been some ups and downs, but I think we responded pretty good each time. We’ve had some good bonding off the court as well. We’ve become family off the court, and that’s a reflection on how we’ve played this season.”

Yale also featured impressive balance this year, and though Ivy League Player of the Year Oni and his fellow first-team All-Ivy selection Copeland may have led the team in scoring, the Elis amassed contributions from all seven of its core players. Guard Azar Swain ’21 and forward Paul Atkinson ’21 practically became starters for the Elis this season, with both averaging about 20 minutes per game. Meanwhile, guards Eric Monroe ’20 and Jalen Gabbidon ’21 provided important spurts off the bench.

Yale’s 76–59 victory to open the season against California signified the first time a Pac-12 team fell in the conference’s annual China Game and marked the beginning of an exhausting nonconference schedule that featured five consecutive away games and closely matched contests with power-conference opponents. The Elis dropped a heartbreaking, foul-filled game to Memphis in double overtime and a single-digit decision to future America East champion Vermont before staging a comeback victory in Miami against the Hurricanes — just the third Eli win over an Atlantic Coast Conference opponent in head coach James Jones’ 20 years at the helm.

Then the Elis faced their toughest challenge yet: Mike Krzyzewski and the fierce Duke Blue Devils. Headlined by the top three high school recruits of the class of 2018 — forwards RJ Barrett, Cam Reddish and Zion Williamson — Duke not only consistently boasts one of the top lineups each year but is also one of the most hostile environments for visiting teams. The condensed intimacy of Cameron Indoor Stadium and its faithful student fans proved too much for Yale, as the squad lost its composure in the closing stretch of the second half.

Benefitting from lessons learned in the 91–58 loss to then-No. 3 Duke, the Bulldogs sparked an eight-game winning streak that bled into conference play after amassing victories against Albany, Monmouth, Iona, Kennesaw State, Cal State Northridge, Skidmore and two against Brown, the second of which yielded Jones’ 300th career win. Oni and Copeland both joined Yale’s 1,000-point club this season, reaching the milestone against Skidmore and Dartmouth, respectively.

The streak, however, came to a stifling halt when Yale clashed with rival Harvard in the first of three momentous meetings. Sluggish and unfocused following Friday afternoon traffic and an unexpectedly delayed arrival at the Crimson’s Lavietes Pavilion, the Elis shot just 30.5 percent from the field and allowed Harvard to cruise to a 16-point win sparked by forward Robert Baker, who finished with 13 points and made an impressive four of his five attempts from behind the three-point arc.

But again, the Bulldogs found a way to respond to a loss, just their second defeat in 10 games, and Yale sparked another winning streak with a dominant performance 24 hours later. Playing Dartmouth in Hanover’s much tamer Leede Arena, Yale beat the Big Green by 21 in a game that saw Bruner drop 17 in the first half and Oni set a new career best with 31 points. Carrying Yale to a six-game winning streak, Oni raised his scoring high once again with 35 points in the Elis’ next game against Princeton to set Yale alone atop the Ivy League standings.

What the squad did not know was that heartbreak loomed around the corner as Harvard arrived in New Haven for a final regular season tilt between the Ivy League’s top teams. Crimson guard Bryce Aiken ended a seesaw affair that included 17 lead changes and 10 ties with a fadeaway that beat the buzzer and lifted Yale’s archrivals to an 88–86 win.

Despite falling in two of its final four regular season games, Yale would share the regular season crown with Harvard and get its revenge at Ivy Madness, hosted in New Haven for the first time. The Elis beat Princeton by six in a Saturday semifinal before defeating Harvard 97–85 the next day in a win that earned Yale its fifth trip to the NCAA tournament in school history and second dance under Jones.

Last week, No. 14 Yale emerged as a popular upset pick over No. 3 LSU as college basketball analysts advised fans on how to fill out their brackets. Yet even though the Elis managed to erase most of the 16-point lead that the Tigers owned at halftime, the Bulldogs fell a few key shots short. Handicapped by an uncharacteristically poor shooting performance from deep, Yale made only eight of its first 37 three-point attempts in the 79–74 loss.

“[I’m] grateful for the guys in this locker room right now, especially my four seniors,” Bruner said after the loss. “There will never be another group like this. They were special, and I truly mean that.”

William McCormack | william.mccormack@yale.edu

Cristofer Zilllo | cris.zillo@yale.edu