MEN’S BASKETBALL: Yale holds off Dartmouth, 72–69, with a key fundamental: free-throw shooting
Azar Swain ’22 shot 14-of-14 from the free-throw line and first-year guard Bez Mbeng ’25 sank two clutch attempts on Yale’s last possession as the Bulldogs scored their final 11 points from the stripe on Friday.
Tim Tai, Staff Photographer
Is it an art or a science? Free-throw shooting, seemingly straightforward and yet deceptively difficult during so many big moments, can win teams games or doom them in the final minutes. The Yale men’s basketball squad used it to its advantage as it secured a fifth conference win Friday night.
Yale (11–9, 5–1 Ivy), playing its first true Ivy League back-to-back of the season this weekend, outlasted Dartmouth (5–13, 2–5) in the first leg before it hosts Harvard (11–7, 3–3) on Saturday. Up by nine at halftime, the Elis led for the majority of the game — 34 of 40 minutes — but found themselves fending off a creeping Big Green advance late in the game. The Bulldogs, and especially guard Azar Swain ’22, answered it at the free-throw stripe, as the team scored its final 11 points from the line and converted all 10 of their attempts in the last four minutes. Yale shot 20-of-23 from the free throw line over the course of the game, its third-best percentage this season.
Two years ago, on this same Dartmouth-Harvard home weekend, Swain made eight of his nine free throws against the Crimson, but missed one that would have capped a last-second four-point play and sent the game to overtime. He has set a number of personal and program records this season and posted new career-highs in a slightly more niche statistic Friday night: 14 free-throw makes on 14 attempts.
“I still have nightmares about the missed free throw vs. Harvard two years ago here,” Swain said. “So that’s something that I have prepared mentally for for the last year and a half being home. I mean, it’s a free throw at the end of the day. I know how to make free throws and just got to do that.”
On Friday, his flawless night at the stripe included eight consecutive free throws when the Elis needed them most in the final minutes. Yale’s first-year guard Bez Mbeng ’25 then scored the final pair, hitting both of his attempts with nine seconds to go to give the Bulldogs a three-point lead, 72–69, that would cement itself as the final score when Dartmouth failed to connect on two final-possession three-point attempts. Consecutive timeouts from Dartmouth head coach David McLaughlin and Yale head coach James Jones preceded the Big Green’s last chance, which featured misses on two decent looks from graduate-student guard Brendan Barry and first-year guard Ryan Cornish.
Barry led Dartmouth with 25 points, 11 of which he scored in the final five minutes to bring his team within one point in the last minute of play. Swain scored 25 to pace Yale. Jones said the Bulldogs were “fortunate to get out with a win” on the final play.
“We knew Barry was gonna come off that hammer screen in the corner, and we did a poor job defending it,” Jones said. “We’re fortunate that he missed, but it’s a tough shot running into a three like that.”
For much of the game and second half, it seemed Yale would not have to defend a potentially game-tying shot before the final buzzer. It led by 12 with 14:54 to play, but as a second half of poor shooting for both teams grinded on, Dartmouth inched back. Veteran Dartmouth guards Taurus Samuels and Barry hit well-timed shots to prevent the Elis from keeping their lead into double digits deeper in the half, as Yale struggled to hit shots, making just one field goal in the final seven minutes of play.
The Elis’ second-half shooting paled in comparison to a blistering 16-for-28 mark in a fluid, faster-paced first half. Dartmouth opened the game by attacking in the post, scoring 16 points in the paint to start the game. The Big Green’s first points outside the paint came almost eight minutes into the game, when guard Izaiah Robinson converted two free throws on a foul by Yale guard August Mahoney ’24. But Yale outscored the Big Green in the paint, 24–18, by the end of the first half and 34–26 over the course of the game.
Dartmouth forward Dame Adelekun hit all four of his first shot attempts, but later cooled to end the game with 17 points and a game-high 15 rebounds.
“[We] just had to pick up the intensity more, play harder,” Yale forward Isaiah Kelly ’23 said. “EJ [Jarvis ’23] came in and took his shot at the guy, and we both just tried to go at him as hard as we could, and we both realized we had to pick up the intensity.”
Yale had built a 28–21 advantage at the under-eight media timeout in the first and entered the halftime break up 41–32 after an interception on the defensive end from guard Michael Feinberg ’23 set up a fast-break layup for forward Matt Knowling ’24, who finished second on the team with 10 points.
In a very low-scoring start to the half, the Big Green hung around. Seven minutes into the frame, the teams had combined for just 10 points — Dartmouth adding six and Yale scoring four to keep a 45–38 lead. Yale expanded its lead midway through the frame before Dartmouth caught up again. Late in the half, Adelekun scored down low to put Dartmouth within three with less than two minutes to play. Swain missed a jumper on the ensuing Yale possession, but got fouled securing his own offensive rebound and coolly sank two free throws, a scene that nearly identically repeated itself two more times before Yale had secured the three-point win. His season free-throw percentage entering Friday (89.4) was tied for 21st among all NCAA Division I men’s basketball players, a ranking that will surely rise once other Friday games conclude across the country.
The victory marked Yale’s first three-game streak of the season, as it has won five of its first six Ancient Eight games.
“The chemistry’s just grown through the year,” Swain said. “Guys really care about each other, and it shows on the court.”
Before the game, both teams wore warmup shirts that read “This Game is No Secret” as part of an initiative organized by Eracism, a social-change committee established by College Insider in Dec. 2020. The shirts honor legendary coach John McLendon and a secret game organized between his team at North Carolina Central, then the North Carolina College for Negroes, and an all-white team of medical students from Duke. McLendon and his up-tempo coaching style — he was the “father of the fast break,” Jones said postgame — helped NC Central win, 88–44, in a no-spectator scrimmage scheduled for a Sunday morning so that most of Durham, including its police force, would be attending church.
The Dartmouth game will be Yale’s last without undergraduates in the stands, at least in the near future, after the University announced Friday that Yale College students’ campus-wide quarantine is ending two days early — on Feb. 5 as opposed to Feb. 7. The shift allows undergraduates, who have not been allowed to attend sporting events since competitions opened to other groups in the Yale community on Jan. 17, to attend games starting on Saturday. For the first time in 2022, some players’ and coaches’ family members also spectated in the John J. Lee Amphitheater Friday. A Yale Athletics spokesperson could not be reached on Friday night to comment on whether family or player-guest attendance has become part of official fan attendance policies.
On Friday afternoon, the athletic department also announced that games will open to the fully-vaccinated public again on Friday, Feb. 11, 10 days earlier than restrictions limiting attendance to the Yale community through Feb. 21 were announced last month. As was the case before the Omicron surge, indoor venues will operate at 75 percent of maximum capacity. In a change from last fall, when children under 11 were not allowed to attend indoor games, kids between the ages of five and 11 can spectate with proof of up-to-date vaccination.
Yale hosts Harvard, which defeated Brown (10–13, 2–6) on Friday, Saturday at 7 p.m.