MEN’S BASKETBALL: Showcasing strong halfcourt defense, Bulldogs stifle Vermont 65–52
Yale’s twin towers, forwards Jordan Bruner ’20 and Paul Atkinson ’21, locked down Vermont senior Anthony Lamb and combined for 40 points and 16 rebounds.
As light snow turned to freezing rain on Sunday afternoon in New Haven, two of the nation’s strongest mid-major programs met in the John J. Lee Amphitheater. Only about 800 fans braved concerns about the weather to witness the game in person, while NESN broadcasted the regional bout throughout New England.
Vermont (6–3, 0–0 America East) and Yale (6–3, 0–0 Ivy), who have played each other every year since the 2007–08 season, finished last year as NCAA tournament participants and two of New England’s top three men’s basketball teams. Vermont finished the year ranked 69th in the national NCAA Net rankings, while the Elis finished at 78th.
On Sunday, the Elis took the latest installment of a battle between Dogs and Cats, shutting down Vermont senior forward Anthony Lamb — who scored 34 points in Vermont’s 79–70 win over Yale last season — and the Catamount offense in a low-scoring 65–52 win. The Bulldog defense held UVM to 36 percent shooting from the field and a five-of-28 mark from three-point range, overcoming an 11–0 Catamount run late in the first half. Starting forwards Jordan Bruner ’20, who defended Lamb, and Paul Atkinson ’21 combined for 40 points and 16 rebounds, propelling Yale to its third straight win.
The Elis limited four opponents to an average of 55.5 points a game over Yale’s Thanksgiving break. The Bulldogs lost a two-point decision to Penn State after owning a double-digit lead most of the game and won the NIT Season Tip-Off tournament in Orlando, Florida, after collecting comfortable victories over Western Michigan and Bucknell.
“[Over] the last four games, we’ve played really well,” head coach James Jones said. “Against Penn State, we let it get away, and then we went down to Disney and played really well … We had a stretch in the first half [Sunday] after we got up by double digits [where] we kind of sunk back and played more individually as opposed to playing like a team. We allowed them to climb back in the game, but other than that, we did a great job at playing team basketball.”
Yale showcased the strength of its halfcourt defense early on Sunday. The Bulldogs entered the game holding opponents to 34.4 percent shooting from the field and locked down Lamb, an NBA prospect, in the first half. Bruner took the assignment, and Jones said after the game that Yale intended to double-team the Catamount senior when he possessed the ball near the basket. On the Cats’ first possession of the game, Atkinson rushed over immediately when Lamb received a pass near the post. The Catamounts missed their first six shots of the game, and a frustrated John Becker, Vermont’s head coach, called a timeout with 16:02 to play and Yale up 12–0.
Lamb, who became the 11th player to score 30-plus points against No. 7 Virginia during the Tony Bennett era in Vermont’s six-point loss to the reigning champions last month, hit his first points of the game on a three-point attempt after the timeout, but the Bulldogs continued their strong team defense. On a Catamount possession with about 10 minutes to play, guard Jalen Gabbidon ’21 assisted Bruner, sneaking up behind Lamb under the basket to swat the ball from his hands and force a Vermont turnover. The Bulldogs forced eight Vermont turnovers in the first half alone.
“[Defense is] one of our key principles,” Jones said. “We were more of an up-and-down team last year, so in doing so, there was more transition for the other team as well. Now, we’re a little bit more of a halfcourt team. When we get teams in the halfcourt, our guys do a great job. My assistants do a great job at giving the scout, and [the players] do a great job at following it. We were in gaps and we helped and [were] limiting shots and contesting shots.”
Yale’s three-point attempts stopped falling late in the frame, and an 11–0 run helped the Catamounts erase much of the Elis’s first-half advantage. Redshirt senior guard Everett Duncan led the charge, hitting a three-pointer and a fastbreak layup that successfully evaded Bruner’s block attempt.
Forward Ryan Davis converted an and-one layup in the paint to bring the score to 26–25 with about a minute to play, and Monroe responded with a triple from the corner on Yale’s next possession to cement the score at 29–25 heading into the break. Atkinson led all scorers with 10 points, while Monroe racked up three early assists, showing composure handling the ball late in the shot clock before swinging it to teammates for open looks.
The second half opened at a faster clip, and three Eli dunks within the first six minutes energized the JLA crowd. Gabbidon started the scoring with a driving dunk, and Bruner and Atkinson each landed putback slams in the ensuing minutes.
Yale, which had led by as much as 13 in the first half, regained a double-digit lead, 37–27, after Bruner found Atkinson for a layup with 16:47 to play.
“I told Paul all the time last year [that] you got to talk because if you don’t get the ball next year, it’s going to be really hard for us to be good,” Bruner said. “Paul’s been dominating every big that he goes against, so we’re going to continue to put some things on his back. I tell him all the time, ‘Even if I’m not looking at you, I’m looking at you.’ We got the type of chemistry where I won’t be looking at him [and] he’ll just duck in, I’ll slide it to his hand and he’ll get a layup… If he’s going to continue to score like that, I’m going to continue to find him always.”
Lamb scored more in the second half, contributing 12 after only scoring six in the first half, but failed to hit a three-pointer in the second period. He ended the game having shot eight-of-23 from the field. Although Vermont threatened briefly in the middle of the half by scoring points in the paint to rim the Yale lead to 43–37, the Bulldogs responded with a 9–2 run.
UVM switched to a zone defense for a possession with a little more than eight minutes to play in the game. Yale made the necessary adjustment on offense, making a few passes on the perimeter before guard August Mahoney ’23 arched a pass to Atkinson inside for two points, inducing a loud “Let’s go!” from Bruner as he jogged back to play defense.
Atkinson missed only one shot from the field in each half, finishing with nine-of-11 shooting from the field to match his season-best in Yale’s triple overtime win over Siena.
“I think last year for me personally, [I was] more of a dump-off guy just filling in a role for our team last year and adapted to that,” Atkinson said. “I’ve had to kind of grow up and play a more dominant role this year.”
A slow finish to the afternoon for both teams culminated in the Catamounts, who never led Sunday afternoon, sending Bruner to the line with one minute to play. Yale did not hit a field goal in the game’s final 6:38, but maintained a 57–50 advantage heading into the final sixty seconds. Gabbidon followed Bruner at the line, and both hit all of their one-and-one attempts to seal the 65–52 win; Yale shot 15-of-17 from the line on the afternoon.
Yale assistant coach Tobe Carberry played for Vermont from 1996 to 2000. Carberry captained the UVM team his senior year and currently ranks No. 21 on the school’s all-time scoring list with 1,235 career points. Becker — America East Coach of the Year in 2017, 2018 and 2019 — dropped his first game against Jones and Yale after wins in three consecutive seasons.
Yale’s win over Vermont, ranked the 87th team in the nation on KenPom following Sunday’s game, marks the Elis’ highest-rated victory this season.
William McCormack | firstname.lastname@example.org