MEN’S BASKETBALL: A show from Azar Swain leads Yale to 83–72 win over Columbia
Swain scored a career-high 37 points and nearly broke a 64-year Yale scoring record as the Bulldogs jumped to a big early lead, but his stellar play also masked a weaker second-half for the team Tuesday night.
Tim Tai, Staff Photographer
Yale men’s basketball guard Azar Swain ’22 has led his team in scoring enough times this season — in 12 of 17 games heading into the Bulldogs’ Tuesday night game vs. Columbia — that seeing some 20-plus point total next to his name in the box score is no surprise.
In November, the senior from Brockton, Mass. entered Yale’s 1,000-point club. In December, he set what was then a new career-high of 34 points at the Barclays Center, earning a Steph Curry comparison from Iona head coach Rick Pitino. A game later vs. Monmouth, he became Yale’s all-time leading three-point scorer.
During an 83–72 win over Columbia (4–13, 1–4 Ivy) on Tuesday night, Swain added another chapter to a storied final season at Yale (9–9, 3–1), taking the high standards for his performance and raising them a notch. As Yale erupted to an early 20–2 lead within the first seven minutes of play, Swain scored 13 of the Elis’ first 20 points and finished the night with 37 points, another new career best.
Guard and captain Jalen Gabbidon ’22 delivered his second consecutive 20-point game in the Bulldogs’ win. Forward Matt Knowling ’24 led the Elis with eight rebounds and four assists and also scored nine points. But Yale head coach James Jones succinctly summed up how coaches and Swain’s teammates might remember Tuesday’s game after this season has passed.
“Thank you, Mr. Swain!” Jones exclaimed as he walked out of his postgame press conference. “Appreciate you today.”
Luke Benz ’19, a Harvard Biostatistics Ph.D. student and a part-time Ivy hoops analyst, noted on Twitter that Swain’s 37 points were tied for the sixth most by any Ivy League men’s basketball player during conference play since the 2002–03 season, which is the farthest his database extends. Swain was just a triple away from becoming the first Yale player to score 40 points in a game since John J. Lee ’58 GRD ’59, the namesake for Yale’s arena, scored that many in 1958 against Harvard. Instead, his 37 were the most a Yale player has scored since 2019 NBA draft pick Miye Oni netted 35 vs. Princeton in Feb. 2019.
Columbia shot just 38.2 percent from the field in the first as the Bulldogs played their best opening minutes of the season, pushing the pace and knocking down more than half of their field goal and three-point attempts in the first half.
“I thought the energy and effort that we started the game [with] was tremendous, as good as we’ve played on both sides of the ball all year,” Jones said. “We’ve been trying to play a little bit faster and play off our offense in transition, where we can just flow into our motion after a missed shot and a defensive rebound.”
The Bulldogs cooled after their ferocious start but still led 46–28 at the break.
Swain, who did not attempt a three-pointer in the second half, entered halftime with 24 points on six-of-eight shooting from deep. His 14 made field goals also set a new career record, and he scored the ball with ruthless efficiency: a 14-of-20 mark from the field represented his highest field goal percentage this season.
“When you hit threes, it kind of just adds up,” Swain said.
“It was less than a 20-point game at the half, and we felt like it should have been more at that point,” Swain added when asked about how his 24 first-half points affected his thought process at the break. “So we just wanted to come out aggressive again in the second half.”
In stealing the show early, Swain also masked a weaker second-half for the Bulldogs, who were outscored by the Lions 44–37 after the break. Yale effectively contained Columbia’s senior forward Ike Nweke in the first half, limiting him to two rebounds and two points on one-of-six shooting from the field. Nweke, who missed most of the nonconference slate with a pair of injuries and was averaging 18.8 points and 7.2 rebounds in his last five games, stepped up in the second.
The 6-foot-7, 248-pound forward is listed about 30 pounds bigger than Yale’s largest defender on the court, forward Isaiah Kelly ’23, and Nweke frequently found his way to the rim after halftime. He finished the contest with a team-high 21 points and nine rebounds. Columbia forward Patrick Harding led all players with 11 boards.
Jones said teams with a lead can be a bit more reluctant “to do the dirty work” defensively and said he thought that was evident for Yale in the second half. He said defenders did a good job moving Nweke to make him work in the first half but allowed the forward to get better positioning in the second. “Once you allow a good player to get post position, it’s over,” Jones said.
Yale has often played much stronger second halves than first halves this season and has particularly struggled between the opening tip and the first media timeout. The opposite was the case on Tuesday, though the Elis’ lead never returned to single digits. Yale was heavily favored to win the contest in the first place, with men’s college basketball ratings site KenPom giving the Bulldogs a 95 percent chance at victory.
“We can’t play one half of basketball,” Gabbidon said. “That’s been somewhat of a theme for us … Starting to learn to put those two halves together is key. Obviously we’re figuring a little out — we came out strong [in the first]. But continuing to be physical and not worrying about fouls and just playing our brand of basketball regardless is really important.”
Yale coaches wore sleek black quarter-zips and white Under Armour sneakers in support of Coaches vs. Cancer and its annual Suits and Sneakers week, which runs from Jan. 24 to Jan. 30 this year.
Jones, who typically wears suits with his staff on the sideline, said he is on the Coaches vs. Cancer committee. He and Brown men’s basketball head coach Mike Martin talked to other coaches in the league, and the conference’s coaches decided to all wear three-quarter zips “as a show of pride.”
Jones’ mother’s name, Edna Davis, was inscribed on the top of his shoes. She passed away from cancer in 2010, Jones said.
“Having her name on [them] just made me feel good, like she was with me tonight which was nice,” Jones added.
Yale has now defeated Columbia in 10 of the programs’ most recent 11 meetings.