Midweek men’s basketball is a rare commodity in New Haven.
Yale plays only one midweek game at the John J. Lee Amphitheater this season — and it didn’t disappoint.
Siena (2–3, 0–0 MAAC) met Yale (3–2, 0–0 Ivy) on Wednesday night in a contest that required an extra 15 minutes to resolve, creating for one of the most exciting games in Yale program history. The triple-overtime thriller marked the first 3OT game the Elis have played since a 1956 game against Princeton, a 77–79 five-overtime loss for the Bulldogs.
In a back-and-forth battle that featured 21 ties and 23 lead changes, the Bulldogs emerged from the 55-minute marathon with a 100–89 victory after pulling away from the Saints in the third overtime period. Guard Azar Swain ’21 scored a career-high 25 points, including a deep, arching three-pointer that tied the game at 72 with four seconds left in regulation. His clutch shot, the result of a play drawn up by Yale head coach James Jones during a timeout with six seconds to play, was one of a dozen three-pointers the Bulldogs made Wednesday night. Yale finished shooting 51 percent from the field and 41 percent from beyond the arc.
Forward Paul Atkinson ’21 added 21 points, guard Matthue Cotton ’22 finished with 13 and forward Jordan Bruner ’20 contributed across the board, finishing with eight points, nine rebounds, nine assists and a career-high seven blocks. Players from both sides offered slick plays across the competition’s 55 minutes. None were bigger than Swain’s deep three.
“Coach drew up a play for me to get at the top of the key,” Swain said. “There was good spacing on the play, so I had the option to kick it if I didn’t have it. But thankfully, [the defender] gave me space, and that’s a shot I work on. It was just a regular hang dribble to the left [and] pull-up three. There was trust and confidence in the huddle. That’s a shot I can take and make.”
The Elis scored consistently throughout the game, opening the night with success shooting in the first half. Yale maintained a field goal percentage that nearly hit 60 percent at some points in the half before the Elis entered the break having converted 12 of their 24 field goal attempts.
The Saints, meanwhile, pushed the ball hard on offense, inbounding immediately after Yale makes and rushing up the floor. Yale guard Jalen Gabbidon ’21, whom Jones said is the Elis’ best perimeter defender, received the task of defending Siena sophomore guard and NBA prospect Jalen Pickett. Pickett, the 2019–20 MAAC Preseason Player of the Year, claimed a league record of 11 MAAC Rookie of the Week honors last season before declaring as an early entrant to the 2019 NBA Draft. Pickett ultimately withdrew from contention, deciding to return to the Saints for his sophomore season, but he drew scouts from three NBA teams to the stands at JLA on Wednesday night — the Los Angeles Clippers, the Utah Jazz and the Dallas Mavericks.
Gabbidon did well defending Pickett, supported by team defense that limited the Saints to 27-of-82 field goal shooting across the game. When Cotton and forward Jameel Alausa ’21 entered the game after the first media timeout and with Yale up 7–6, replacing Gabbidon and Bruner, captain and guard Eric Monroe ’20 began defending Pickett. Gabbidon, however, picked up the assignment whenever both he and Pickett were on the floor.
Despite playing every single second of the first half, the NBA prospect scored only seven of the Saints’ 32 first-half points. His frustration showed late in the half when referees hit Pickett with a technical foul for arguing a no-call on his drive to the basket. Pickett, who averaged 37.1 minutes a game last season, ultimately played all 55 minutes Wednesday night. He took 21 shots and only converted six, yet still managed to finish the game with 17 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists, nearly a triple-double.
Forward Jordan Bruner ’20, who played a career-high 44 minutes before fouling out, said the strain didn’t affect him.
“I’m a hooper,” Bruner said. “I didn’t really feel it too much.”
But Jones — who has already paced up and down the Elis’ sideline in three overtime games (at Stony Brook, at San Francisco and now versus Siena) against the four Division I opponents Yale has played this season — disagreed.
“I feel more exhausted,” Jones said. “It was harder for this old man to deal with the ups and downs of the game. Against Stony Brook, I felt like we were going to win the whole time. I wasn’t sure we were going to win this one, and the guys dug in and they got it done. … We’ve played to the level of our opponents every game [this season], and we haven’t played our game yet. So I’m waiting for that. I’m working towards that every day in practice.”
Jones said learning from overtime games during the nonconference slate, especially when the Bulldogs manage to win, will hopefully improve the Bulldogs for Ivy League play later this winter.
On Wednesday night, strong ball movement involved everyone on the floor, magnifying such lessons. Yale finished the first half with 10 assists on 12 field goals and continued sharing the rock as the second started with the score tied at 32. The Elis collected 10 points in the first three minutes of the frame on perfect 4-for-4 shooting with four assists, finishing the evening with a season-high 26 assists on 35 field goals. But offense came easy for Siena out of the break too — the two teams combined for 28 points in the first 5:30 of the second half with the score tied at 46.
Swain established his presence in the frame, hitting two three-pointers early in the period before his third of the half brought a crowd of 746 to their feet, tying the game at 72. Fans remained on their feet for much of the first two overtime periods, seesaw affairs that included the best of late-game basketball drama: big three-pointers from Monroe and Cotton, 32 combined free throws and a foul call on Gabbidon with 5.7 seconds to play in the second overtime period, with which Jones and the Yale bench seemed displeased. The call sent Pickett to the charity stripe for two free throws with Siena down 86–84 — he made both, sending the contest into triple overtime.
Finally, with Yale up 92–88 and Swain shooting the second of two free throws with 1:22 to play in the period, a monumental Bruner rebound sealed the deal. The 6-foot-9-inch senior grabbed the offensive board on Swain’s missed free throw, heading right back up with the ball for an and-one finish. He missed the free throw, symbolic of a difficult shooting night for the versatile big man, but the second-chance points gave Yale a six-point lead with 82 seconds to play, securing a hard-fought victory.
“I just play hard and compete,” Bruner said. “We’ve been playing a little too tight. When the ball leaves my hand, I can’t really do anything about it. I get shots up every day. I work out every day. Tonight, I was 0 for 3 [from the free throw line], but I was a rebound, a couple points, an assist and three blocks away from a quadruple-double.”
Before visiting New Haven Wednesday night, the Saints played in Cambridge last Thursday, falling to Ivy League preseason favorite Harvard 59–56 after making a second-half surge. Crimson guard Bryce Aiken and forward Seth Towns both missed the game with injuries, and Pickett only scored four points after getting in foul trouble.
Yale resumes its nonconference schedule with a road trip this weekend. As thousands descend on New Haven for the 136th installation of The Game between Harvard and Yale football this weekend, the men’s basketball program will move against the traffic, travelling to Penn State for a Saturday afternoon matchup.
The Elis then play Monday and Tuesday at ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Florida as part of the NIT Season Tip-Off tournament.
William McCormack | firstname.lastname@example.org