MEN’S BASKETBALL: Azar Swain matches Yale’s career three-point record, but 91–77 loss to Iona shadows his stellar night
Guard Azar Swain ’22 set new career bests by scoring 34 points and seven three-pointers, but Iona countered his strong shooting with 10 threes of its own to beat the Bulldogs at the Barclays Center Sunday night.
William McCormack, Contributing Photographer
NEW YORK — Yale men’s basketball guard Azar Swain ’22 was firing on all cylinders Sunday night at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. His 34 points and seven made threes were both career bests, and he matched his career record with a team-high eight rebounds.
On his final triple of the night, a soaring shot launched from just right of the top of the key with 5:54 to play, Swain raised his career three-point total to 229, matching the all-time school record held by Ed Petersen ’92.
The Yale bench stood to celebrate — if not for Swain’s tying a major program record, then at least for another three from their super senior and leading scorer — before Iona’s Dylan van Eyck sunk a three-pointer of his own less than 20 seconds later, increasing the Gaels’ lead to 16.
The progression — a Swain make followed by three points for the Gaels on the other end — summed up the game’s general flow. Swain kept Yale (6–6, 0–0 Ivy) a threat into the second half, but Iona’s (9–2, 2–0 MAAC) own shooters lifted the Gaels to a 91–77 win in the fourth and final game of the Basketball Hall of Fame Invitational.
Swain said that despite people asking how far he stood from the three-point school record, he still did not know and that the impending mark was not on his mind entering Sunday night.
“Coming into it, we just wanted to try to be the aggressors and try to compete as hard as we could,” Swain said during the postgame press conference. “And we just had some lapses tonight. We didn’t play our best basketball.”
Swain’s 14 three-point attempts also set a new Yale record, while his seven conversions were one short of the school record. All eleven Yale players who saw the floor Sunday scored, but no one besides Swain finished in double figures.
Despite Swain’s stellar shooting, the Gaels were just as efficient on the other end. They shot 56.3 percent from the field, including five-of-11 from beyond the arc, in the first half. Iona entered the matchup shooting just about 32 percent from deep this season, but it finished the game with 45.5 percent shooting from the three-point line to complement a 51.6 percent mark from the field.
Yale head coach James Jones said Yale needed to be tougher defensively and not allow opposing ball handlers to drive and penetrate.
“They were able to get driving layups against us, and we had some miscues defensively on the perimeter where we gave up a lot of open looks,” Jones said. “Iona’s not a great three-point shooting team, but they were tonight. A lot of that was due to the fact that they had a lot of open looks that were uncontested.”
Swain initiated his hot start in the first by knocking down three of his first four three-point attempts. He seemed to be everywhere, finishing the night with a team-high three steals. At one point, he followed a pullup three-pointer with a steal of Iona’s inbound pass and a relaxed midrange jumper. Fans lowering their heads to take a bite from a Barclays Center burger would have missed the five points he scored within a matter of seconds. The sequence put Yale up 18–17 about halfway through the first half.
Swain scored his 20th point of the night less than 15 minutes into the game, cutting Iona’s lead to 31–29 with a free throw that followed an and-one take to the rim.
Despite the Gaels’ 14-point win, Swain seemed to be the main story postgame. Iona head coach Rick Pitino did not open his remarks talking about his own team’s shooting night — instead, he started with Swain’s.
“We were happy to survive an unbelievable night by Azar Swain,” Pitino said. “He was just incredible to start. Perfect from the foul line, 50 percent from the three-point line. We’re one of the better three-point defensive teams in the nation, and tonight we weren’t.”
Pitino is in his second season leading the Gaels in New Rochelle, N.Y. after a long career that has included stops at Boston University, Providence, Kentucky and Louisville. Pitino has nearly 800 career wins and was the first coach to take three different schools to the NCAA Final Four, but was fired from Louisville in 2017 after the FBI opened an investigation into college recruiting bribery allegations that involved the Cardinals program.
He said that Iona forward Berrick JeanLouis had locked down the opponent’s best player in most games this season but could not slow Swain Sunday night.
“We stopped the other guys,” Pitino added. “We just didn’t stop him. He played like Steph Curry tonight.”
Iona charged ahead towards the end of the first half, riding a 10–0 run over the span of about two minutes. A jumper from guard Elijah Joiner then lifted the Gaels’ lead to 15 with 90 seconds to go in the half. Yale entered halftime down 47–37 after two points in the final minute from forward Jack Molloy ’25 and an and-one drive from point guard Eze Dike ’22, whose take to the rim through the middle of the paint made Pitino upset with Joiner’s defense. “You just gave him the right hand, whether it’s a foul or not is irrelevant,” he loudly told his graduate student guard from the sideline.
Iona started the second on an 11–0 run to go up 21, its largest lead of the game.
Yale was lacking a key player, EJ Jarvis ’23, entering the game Sunday night. Jarvis made his first career start during Yale’s win over Albany Tuesday before suffering what appeared to be an elbow to the head and leaving the game early. He was not on the Yale bench Sunday night, and Jones said postgame that the junior forward has concussion symptoms.
Meanwhile, first-year Molloy left the game after appearing to injure some part of his lower body while landing on the court after a putback dunk, and foul trouble presented another complicating factor. Yale captain and guard Jalen Gabbidon ’22, forward Yussif Basa-Ama ’24, guard Matthue Cotton ’23 and forward Isaiah Kelly ’23 all had picked up at least three fouls less than halfway through the second frame. When Gabbidon picked up his fourth foul with 10:26 to play and Yale down 67–50, Jones opted to keep him on the floor.
The Elis nearly cut the deficit to single digits as the half went on, relying on more scoring from Swain, including his record-tying three-pointer, and significant playing time off the bench from two rookies, guard Bez Mbeng ’25 and forward Matt Knowling ’24. Mbeng’s team-high four assists came over 17 minutes of playing time, which was seven more minutes than he had ever previously played in a Yale game. Knowling’s new career high of 20 minutes was also seven higher than he had ever played for the Blue and White.
“I’m so proud of those guys,” Swain said. “They came in and competed hard [and] didn’t shy away from the moment or anything like that.” The senior specifically cited Mbeng’s four assists as indicative of the bench contributions Yale will need moving forward.
Sunday night’s game marked the third all-time matchup between Iona and Yale. Though only about 60 miles separate the schools’ campuses, the two men’s basketball programs met for the first time in Dec. 2017, a home win for the Gaels. Yale then beat the Gaels at home when they visited New Haven in Dec. 2018 for the second leg of the home-and-home series.
Yale entered the game a slight underdog against its fellow mid-major, according to the analytics-focused 2022 Pomeroy College Basketball Ratings (KenPom), which estimated a 59 percent chance of victory for the Gaels. Iona, which defeated Harvard in overtime at the start of the season and took down then No. 10 Alabama on Thanksgiving, ranked 111 on the site out of 358 NCAA Division I men’s basketball teams. Yale stood at 139.
The contest was the fourth and final game of the 2021 Basketball Hall of Fame Invitational. Miami and Fordham started the day early with an 11:30 a.m. tipoff, with the Hurricanes beating the Rams 72–66. No. 1 Purdue then held off NC State in overtime before Maryland beat No. 20 Florida by two to clear the court — and much of the stands — for the Yale-Iona nightcap.
Yale alumnus and benefactor Joe Tsai ’86 LAW ’90 — who owns the Brooklyn Nets and is the chairman of BSE Global, the company that governs the Barclays Center — sat courtside Sunday night. Yale’s Director of Athletics Vicky Chun and Deputy Director of Athletics Mary Berdo were also in attendance for the game.
Yale plays another MAAC opponent Tuesday night when it hosts Monmouth (8–2, 2–0 MAAC) at 7:00 p.m.