Politicians are very good at spinning losses as wins. As I write on the eve of the New Hampshire primary, the one thing I am certain of is that just about every candidate will use the results to declare a new mandate and new momentum. They have mastered the mystical art of surpassing their own self-created expectations.

Sports are a bit different. The standings show winning percentages devoid of the assumptions, algorithms and estimates that underlie every poll. And in this sense, the Yale men’s basketball team’s 78–77 loss to Harvard last Friday was just that: a loss. Period.

The Bulldogs responded by crushing Dartmouth on Saturday to maintain their first-place status in the Ivy League, and now their full attention is turned toward the deadly back-to-back weekend at Princeton and Penn.

But everyone who was at Friday’s game — the student section overflowed to the point that ushers directed students to the rarely-filled seats above the baskets — knows that this was not just any old loss. The Elis made up a 13-point lead in the last five minutes, holding the Crimson without a field goal in that span. They had two good chances to tie the game or take the lead and missed both. Harvard made two free throws with five seconds left, bolstering its lead to four, apparently enough to seal a victory. And then guard Azar Swain ’21 heaved a miraculous shot well beyond the three-point line that banked in off the glass — and drew a foul. John J. Lee Amphitheater shook.

But Swain, Yale’s best shooter, missed the free throw. The crowd fell silent, and Harvard, as stunned as everyone else, escaped with the win.

It would be easy to call this a moral victory. Harvard is a very good team, despite already suffering three losses in league play. The comeback, as experienced in the ear-ringing company of my peers in the standing room-only student section, was electrifying. But the game exposed Yale’s vulnerabilities that have been lurking behind the team’s head-turning season thus far.

At times, it seemed as though the Elis were playing two on five. Swain and forward Paul Atkinson ’21 scored 61 of the team’s 77 points. The Crimson had four players register double-digit performances; the entire Yale team, excluding the two juniors, scored four measly field goals all night. When head coach James Jones subbed Atkinson and Swain out at the 9:42 mark in the second half, Harvard immediately swelled its lead from three to nine. Jones sent both back in not even two minutes later, and, on cue, Atkinson found Swain for a layup.

The two juniors had more than the team on their back — they played as though they had the soaring Gothic tower of Payne Whitney Gymnasium leaning on their jerseys. For the Bulldogs to maintain their Ivy League supremacy, they will need much more from Jordan Bruner ’20, who added just three points, and from the bench.

The Harvard game showed, once and for all, that this is a different team from last year’s March Madness-qualifying squad. Gone is the lockdown defense of Trey Phills ’19. Gone is the silky pull-up jumper of Alex Copeland ’19. Gone is Ivy League Player of the Year Miye Oni, in whom everyone in the building trusted — always.

This current team works harder. If Yale won on Friday, it would have been because of its defense, which continually kept the team in the game and injected energy into the crowd; it would have been because of the sheer willpower of two tested juniors who long played supporting roles.

We have all grown up. In the last months of high school, I watched with awe as a baby-faced Makai Mason ’18 led Yale to a miraculous upset over Baylor in the NCAA Tournament. His subsequent injuries the next years only added to the reverence with which I viewed him. Over time, Phills and Copeland became the team’s leaders, and Oni developed into an NBA-level talent. With Mason finishing his college career at Baylor, the Bulldog trio led the team back to the NCAA Tournament last year and nearly to another upset victory. Now, the superstars and celebrities are all gone. We are left with only ourselves.

Of course, this is how seniors always feel. It’s much more fun to look up to larger-than-life figures than to pretend to fill their roles oneself.

In the storybook version of the game, Swain makes the free throw and Yale cruises in overtime. But this game, and this season, will be more complicated. As magical as the comeback was, it was not quite enough. To keep pace in the Ivy League, the team will need every ounce of savviness from the core leadership, and quite a bit of zest from the role players. It might not be as pretty, but this team will not go quietly into that good night.

Friday night’s loss does not lend itself to declaring victory prematurely. I leave that to the politicians.

And if James Jones ever runs for office, he has my vote.

 

Steven Rome | steven.rome@yale.edu