MEN’S BASKETBALL: Yale quiets Princeton, 66–63, on Senior Night
Seven second-half three-pointers put Princeton within a possession, but the Elis preserved their lead through the final whistle to secure their ninth sweep of the Penn–Princeton home weekend in ten seasons.
Yale men’s basketball captain and guard Eric Monroe ’20 said he thought the John J. Lee Amphitheater looked more different than it ever had before.
On Saturday afternoon, less than twenty-four hours after winning a thrilling battle with Penn, he and forward Jordan Bruner ’20 joined the team in the gym for a preparatory yoga routine. They sat down on the shiny hardwood floor of JLA, peered up and reflected.
“I know [for] me, Jordan, [and forward] Austin [Williams ’20], there’s a lot of things going on in our head throughout the day, throughout the weekend, that aren’t necessarily things we’re usually thinking about,” the Yale captain said. “You see the gym and you see it in a different way for the first time.”
But by the time they received flowers and framed white jerseys from head coach James Jones at center court, the trio were locked in, focused on winning their final game at home. Forward Austin Williams ’20 joined Monroe and Bruner in the starting lineup, helping Yale (22–6, 10–2 Ivy) to a high-energy start. The Bulldogs shut down Princeton (13–12, 8–4) center Richmond Aririguzoh, overcoming a small deficit in the first half to enter the second with a lead they never relinquished. Despite a flurry of second-half three-pointers that helped Princeton narrow the game to one possession with less than a minute to play, a clutch block from forward Paul Atkinson ’21, who led the Elis with 18 points, and two free throws from Monroe helped seal a 66–63 win.
“I’m fortunate to be blessed with a really great coaching staff, and we’ve done a really good job of recruiting quality, young student-athletes to come in and help shape the change of the program,” Jones said. “I mean, we have great players. They make me look good. If I can have Jordan Bruners and Eric Monroes on the floor all the time, I look like I know what I’m doing.”
For the second consecutive evening, an official review within the final minute helped Yale benefit from a key defensive stop. On Friday, Monroe blocked Penn senior forward AJ Brodeur before the bell fell out of bounds, and officials awarded Yale the ball after initially granting Penn possession. On Saturday, Atkinson offered the big play, blocking forward Ryan Schwieger as he attempted a layup that would have given the Tigers a 63–62 lead with 43 seconds to go.
Instead, Atkinson swatted the shot, and after a brief discussion between officials at the video monitor, it was Yale’s ball. Two free throws from the Bulldog forward on the next possession extended Yale’s lead to 64–61, and another Princeton foul followed a hasty two-pointer from guard Jaelin Llewellyn, who led all scorers with 21 points on nine-of-16 shooting from the field. Monroe approached the free throw line with 11 seconds left in a one-point game.
After forcing the Quakers to collapse on Friday, Jones said he was not worried about losing the lead and following in their footsteps.
“We made some mistakes down the stretch that got them back in the game,” the 21st-year head coach said. “We had a couple of costly turnovers that gave them a glimpse of light, but playing close games like this just helps you manage your team and helps you understand what you need to do to be successful… You feel good about that, Eric stepping to the free throw line with 11 seconds to go. You felt good about him knocking them down.”
And knock them down he did, Monroe’s mother recording the pair of conversions — his final in JLA — from the first row of bleachers behind the Yale bench. Her smartphone camera remained on as the teams shook hands following a 66–63 win, one cemented after Schwieger and forward Drew Friberg missed a pair of low-quality three-point attempts.
But for much of the night, the three-pointer sustained Princeton’s effort, helping the Tigers earn a lead in the first and keeping them afloat in the second half. Yale’s seniors scored the Elis’ first four points, hyping up a crowd that exceeded 2,000. Williams rolled off a screen he set for guard Azar Swain ’21 to hit Yale’s first shot of the game, connecting from midrange, and the next two points came from Monroe.
“We know Austin can make that shot,” Monroe said. “He’s done it about a million times in practice. That’s kind of what he’s known for, that little stop and pop midrange, but it’s definitely cool to see all of us contribute, kind of a full circle thing.”
The Eli lead reached 18–10 in the first, but a three-pointer from guard Jose Morales cut the Bulldog advantage to three, 18–15, with a little more than eight minutes to play in the half.
Atkinson and the Bulldogs proved early they had Aririguzoh handled in the paint. The center averages 12.3 points and 7.4 rebounds per game, but only posted two points and one rebound in 27 minutes on Saturday. Within the first fifteen minutes of the first half, he had traveled three times near the rim. Princeton resorted to the long ball as a result.
Within two minutes, a trio of three-pointers from Schwieger and guard Ethan Wright put the Tigers up 26–23 for its first lead since the first minute. Yale earned an advantage back at the buzzer, as Monroe found Atkinson for a layup at the last second. Aririguzoh got stuck defending the captain at the top of the key, and Atkinson turned a floating pass into two points as he cut towards the hoop. The final play gave Yale a 27–26 lead entering the half.
“At the end of the day, we just got to come together,” Bruner said. “There are a lot of close games where you may not be making shots and they be making shots or we’re in transition and we’re just not finishing or getting the calls. Some games go like that. But at the end of the day, you gotta find out who has more grit. The last two days, that’s been my team.”
Bruner proved it in the second half, scoring all 11 of his points in the frame to complement a night in which he led the team with 12 rebounds and four assists. Yale opened the period on a 12–3 run, as consecutive three-pointers from the 6-foot-9 forward increased his side’s lead to 39–29.
His third and final three-pointer fell later in the half, and all three incited a big reaction from the crowd as so many momentum-shifting plays from the senior have over his collegiate career. Yale’s season, of course, is ongoing, but Bruner — who said he forgot it was Senior Night when he stepped on the court for tipoff — will not have the chance to rumble JLA any longer.
“That’s life,” he said postgame. “As straightforward as that sounds, you know, there have been a lot of occurrences in my life where you know going in that’s going to be the last time, so it’s not hard to believe. Like Eric said, we sat down and thought about it before the fact and you know we came out and played and we’ll think about it after the fact, but going in, you just try to focus on trying to get the win.”
Through much of the second half, the deep ball kept Princeton relevant and served as their primary source of scoring with Aririguzoh struggling in the post. A portion of the Yale student section chanted, “We want Richmond!” at one point halfway through the frame, as Princeton decided to live — and ultimately die — by the three.Through sixteen minutes of the second half, seven of their 11 converted field goals had come from behind the arc.
A conversion from Llewellyn late in the shot clock kept Yale’s lead within single digits, 43–34, with just under fourteen minutes to play. Another from Schwieger, this time right in front of head coach Mitch Henderson and his Princeton bench, accomplished the same thing a few minutes later, turning a double-digit Eli advantage to a single-digit deficit. When sophomore guard Ethan Wright added one of his own on Princeton’s next possession, guard Matthue Cotton ’22, who had closed out on the shooter, looked confused and irritated. Everything was falling.
And then Yale started hitting their own shots from deep. With nine minutes to go, Bruner launched an attempt from practically the same spot above the key he had hit already hit two other triples in the period. 45 seconds later, Cotton followed with a four-point play, swishing his attempt from deep. Swain contributed his own four-point play a few minutes later, and Jones pumped his fist three times, retreating from his perch by the scorer’s table to a seat on the bench for the free throw, which made it 62–54 with a little more than six minutes to go.
Swain’s deep ball would mark the Elis’ last field goal of the evening, and Princeton’s final conversion from deep came soon after, as Wright cut Yale’s advantage to five before a defensive conclusion to the game sealed by Atkinson’s block and Monroe’s pair of free throws.
The captain, who scored 21 points across his final weekend at home, offered some broader reflections after defeating Penn on Friday.
“What I want to take from my experience here is just the relationships that I built,” he said. “So I hope that I have relationships that last a lifetime. As far as what I want to be remembered by as a player, I don’t know, whatever anybody wants to think about me. It doesn’t matter too much.’
So Jones jumped in.
“Someone that does the right thing always,” he added. “That tries, that strives to do the right thing and lead by example. That’s the way I’ll remember him.”
With an Ivy Madness berth clinched, Jones hopes his captain’s career is far from over. The memories might only get better. Saturday’s victory was Yale’s 22nd of the season, matching the overall total of last year’s NCAA Tournament squad, which finished 22–8. Going forward, the Bulldogs will only play games in March, when anything feels possible.
For Bruner, a vocal leader and immediate contributor who made his 56th career start Saturday, the goal is clear.
“We want to be champions real bad,” he said. “And that’s all there is to it.”
William McCormack | firstname.lastname@example.org