MEN’S BASKETBALL: Swain’s 33 nearly complete second-half comeback as Yale falls to Harvard, 78–77
G Azar Swain ’21 and F Paul Atkinson ’21 each set career-highs, combining for 61 points and 21 of Yale’s 25 field goals.
The Elis fought with Harvard on their home court Friday evening, and momentum swung wildly in the second half as guard Azar Swain ’21 poured in 27 of a career-high 33 points. His field goal conversions in the frame fell from everywhere: four from beyond the arc, three on aggressive drives to the hoop, one from midrange and seven from the free throw line.
And in the end, as with last season’s Yale–Harvard game in New Haven, it all came down to one final shot. With Yale (16–5, 4–1 Ivy) down 78–74, Swain received an inbounds pass and rushed up the floor, drawing contact and a foul from Harvard (14–6, 3–2) guard Rio Haskett as he launched a prayer towards the rim in the final seconds, the ball floating to what felt like the ceiling before banking off the backboard and through the net. Head coach James Jones’ arms shot straight up in delight, and an overflowing student section that spent all 40 minutes on their feet went wild, realizing how miraculous this finish might really be. One final shot had spawned another final shot, an attempt from Swain at the free throw line that could salvage a game Yale had never led and send it to overtime.
“[Haskett] was trying to put pressure on me,” Swain said. “When I went up to shoot it, he tried to tell me, “no shot,” but he ended up fouling me, so [that] kind of worked against him there. It is what it is in that situation. You just try to push it and get a good look.”
Fans — whether among the more than 2,700 that packed into Yale’s John J. Lee Amphitheater or watching across the nation on ESPNU — just had to wait a long time for the free throw. As officials sought to confirm how much time to leave on the game clock, four minutes and eight seconds elapsed between the time Swain released his three-pointer and final attempt at the charity stripe.
But finally, there was only Swain and the hoop, the basketball in his hands as he stared down the rim 15 feet in front of him. Although he had gone eight-for-eight from the line beforehand, his attempt to cap a game-tying four-point play fell off the front rim, cementing a 78–77 win for the Crimson.
After two significant second-half runs, a career-high 28 points from forward Paul Atkinson ’20 and sheer brilliance from Swain in the closing minutes, Yale fell just one point short.
“That’s one of the things that happens with having a monitor and the officials going there, but it’s part of the game,” Jones said. “What are you going to do? You can’t make excuses. We gotta step up and make a shot, and we didn’t tonight. We’ll make it next time.”
Joined by former Yale guard Alex Copeland ’19 — who scored 21 points in last season’s heartbreaking edition of the game at JLA and sat courtside Friday night — teammates rushed to console Swain as the game and his dominant second half concluded.
In the first half, Atkinson provided the offensive power, scoring Yale’s first 7 points and finishing the frame with 17 on eight-of-11 shooting. Guard Jalen Gabbidon ’21 found a cutting Atkinson for the big man’s first bucket of the game, a two-handed dunk that kept the Yale crowd fired up after the opening tip. The basket made it 2–2, the only tie of Friday’s game.
“I feel like if teams aren’t going to double team me, it’s going to be a really long day for them,” Atkinson said. “I felt like they kind of tested me to see what I could do against them, and I just took the challenge. They didn’t really bring a double team, and [I] got some good shots.”
Yale, which found itself down 8–2 after a jumper from Crimson guard Christian Juzang, an alley-oop to forward Robert Baker and a fastbreak layup from guard Noah Kirkwood, trailed the remainder of the evening.
With just under ten minutes to go in the period, Atkinson — who scored eight of the Bulldogs’ 12 first-half field goals — cut the deficit to one, 21–20, with another two-handed dunk, but Harvard responded with another run, scoring seven straight.
“We just talked about how we fought and we battled and we just need to be smarter,” Jones said postgame after addressing his team. “There were some offensive possessions where the ball stalled and stopped. That’s just not who we are… We took some ill-advised shots and that hurt us, and then they got some energy, and they were able to make shots and go on a run.”
The Crimson, which shot six-of-11 from deep in the first half, hit their open shots. At one point late in the half, a screen caught Atkinson up down low, and Baker moved beyond the perimeter to sink an open three-pointer, making it 42-28. Kirkwood led his side with 11 at the break, while Baker and forward Danilo Djuricic had two triples and eight points apiece. Harvard led at the break, 45–32.
A Swain free throw almost three minutes into the second half marked the first point of the next frame. Harvard guard Justin Bassey fouled Swain attempting a deep three, and the sharpshooting guard converted all three from the charity stripe to cut Harvard’s lead to ten, 45–35. Bassey’s foul was already Harvard’s fifth of the half, proof of a sloppy start to the period.
Conversions at the free throw line sparked a string of eight straight points for Swain, who drove to the hoop on his next offensive possession before hitting a three-pointer from the corner.
Kirkwood continued to respond to Bulldog baskets as Yale sought to chip away at the deficit. A jumper came after Swain’s three free throws, while a deep two-pointer in front of the student section followed a successful Gabbidon take on the previous possession. The shot brought Harvard’s lead back to double digits.
The Elis eventually launched a 9–0 run, with Jones at one point waving his arms to fire up the Yale crowd as his Bulldogs jogged back in hopes of a defensive stop. It worked: Haskett missed a three, forward Jordan Bruner ’20 collected the rebound and Atkinson made a layup on the other end. The Crimson lead had narrowed to one, 52–51, and was still only three when Swain and Atkinson sat with 9:42 to play. In their absence, Harvard added five points in less than 50 seconds, receiving a layup from Djuricic down low and a three-pointer Juzang on the outside. Although Swain and Atkinson returned about a minute and a half later, Harvard’s lead had stretched to 73–60 with five minutes remaining.
But led by its junior scorers and a defense that had emerged from its first-half slumber, Yale responded again with its third momentous run of the night.
“There’s a lot of fight in these dogs,” Jones said. “These guys are gonna go, and they’re gonna give their best effort.”
Harvard didn’t score a field goal in the last 5:02 as Swain and Atkinson combined to lead a 10–0 run, supplemented by a strong take from captain and guard Eric Monroe ’20. Swain himself hit Yale’s last nine points, bringing them to within two after dancing off Juzang to hit a stepback triple with 2:25 to play. Juzang was automatic from the free throw line down the stretch, but when Kirkwood missed the front end of a one-and-one with less than a minute to play, Swain raced down the floor again, hitting another three to make it 75–74.
One Kirkwood free throw later, guard Matthue Cotton ’22 badly missed a three-point attempt at the end of a chaotic Yale possession that would have given the Elis the lead. But instead, Harvard possessed the ball with nine seconds on the clock, and Juzang hit two free throws on his side’s final possession, setting up Swain’s wild shot at a four-point play that never was.
“I don’t really know what to say about the free throw,” Swain said. “We just keep fighting. That’s the identity of our team. That’s my identity… I was looking forward to playing overtime, but we have a game tomorrow, and it’s just as important.”
William McCormack | firstname.lastname@example.org