It was all tragically familiar.
In their last regular season meeting, the Yale men’s basketball team led Harvard convincingly in the first half but slowly relinquished the lead. Star guard Miye Oni ’20 succumbed to foul trouble, and his Crimson counterpart Bryce Aiken drained a devastating buzzer-beater to stun the crowd and snatch first place in the Ivy League.
Now, in a rematch in the finals of the Ivy League Tournament, Harvard was doing it again at John Lee Amphitheater. Tommy Amaker’s team had already overcome a 10-point deficit by the end of the first stanza. Oni, the Ivy League Player of the Year, went to the bench with his fourth foul at the 14:13 mark of the second half. The Crimson, who had beaten Yale four straight times, seized a one-point advantage and seemingly all of the momentum. The Bulldogs’ crimson-stained kryptonite had returned with a vengeance.
Out went Oni, and in came Alex Copeland ’19. The ensuing six minutes would define the Bulldogs’ now-concluded season and definitively announce to the (albeit small) world of Ivy League basketball fans that Yale was more than the sum of its parts, more than the launching pad for an NBA-bound superstar — that Yale was a gritty, resilient, fun-to-watch, capital-T Team.
Those six minutes catapulted the Elis to a 97–85 triumph over Harvard and into the NCAA Tournament, where they faced SEC champion and No. 3 LSU in the first round. At the heart of it all was Copeland: not the superhero swooping in for acclaim, but the ever-reliable sidekick who proved, once and for all, that he deserves a starring role of his own.
Once Copeland returned to the floor, the two teams traded baskets before the Elis soared to a 15–0 run. Copeland scored eight of those points and assisted on two of the other buckets. He fueled the Bulldogs’ frenetic style — an Ivy League team scored 97 points! — while maintaining complete control of the basketball. He committed just a single turnover over 72 minutes of play in the Ivy League Tournament.
Copeland crossed-over and dipped and swiveled and darted and stopped on a dime and suddenly, the Elis held a 73–59 lead. In 38 minutes, Copeland nearly matched a career-high with 25 points. Meanwhile, Oni played just 27 minutes and shot 3–10 from the field (although his 10–10 free throw shooting powered him to an impressive 17 points).
In the March Madness matchup, it was more of the same. Even though Yale was a sexy upset pick, it turns out that SEC-champion athletes are slightly bigger and more athletic than Ivy League-champion athletes. The Bulldogs were completely stymied inside by towering Tiger forwards Naz Reid and Kavell Bigby-Williams, and so they turned to the only viable option: the three-pointer. They launched 37 but made just eight from long range. Oni shot particularly poorly, going 2–16 from the field, including nine of 10 misfires from deep. It is difficult to win a game in the NCAA Tournament as a 14-seed when your star player shoots 2–16 from the field.
And yet Yale almost did just that — mostly because of Copeland. Somehow he weaved between purple skyscrapers and hoisted shots above them. His mid-range game and shiftiness at the basket once again worked wonders and netted him 24 points.
But this was no one-man show. With Oni draped by defenders and shooting at a lidded basket, the 6-foot Azar Swain ’21 notched 12 points and five rebounds off the bench, including a couple oh-no-he-didn’t-shoot-from-there three-pointers. Forward Paul Atkinson ’21 added nine more from the pine, and Jordan Bruner ’20 stepped up with 16 points and a couple of impeccable passes from the high post.
The Bulldogs trailed by as much as 18 but were within four with 30 seconds to play. Maybe there are no moral victories in sports, but this comeback felt like one. This team’s spirit is what makes people fall in love with college basketball every March. Ditch the NBA and its super-teams — this Yale squad had a mild-mannered senior drop 24 points on LSU by perfecting the dying art form of the top-of-the-key floater.
Thus ended the Bulldogs’ season and Copeland’s career, which started and ended with March Madness berths and saw Yale drop just 15 Ivy League contests across 56 games. If Oni does forgo his senior season for the NBA — a legitimate possibility given chatter that he is a top-50 pick, despite the plea of my columnist colleague Matthew Mister ’19 for him to stay here — Yale fans will miss his talent, work ethic and leadership. But in some ways, I think I’ll miss his sidekick more. Not all heroes wear capes. And this hero is named Cope.
Contact Steven Rome at email@example.com .