MEN’S BASKETBALL: Yale’s 62–59 win at Harvard follows Saturday’s script, secures a series sweep
In Boston Wednesday night, Yale relied on strong defense to build a double-digit lead before surviving a late second-half push from the Crimson. The win gives the Elis their first regular-season sweep of Harvard since 2016.
Courtesy of Drew Dummer
BOSTON — Yale’s men’s basketball team played against its biggest rival for the second time in five days Wednesday night, facing Harvard in back-to-back games for the first time since March 1963.
In Lavietes Pavilion off the Charles River, the sequel to the Elis’ 58–55 win over the Crimson on Saturday followed a strangely similar script. In a low-scoring game without much three-point shooting, Yale (13–9, 7–1 Ivy) led by 14 with 12:13 to play before a Harvard push over the later part of the second half brought the contest down to another key final possession for the Crimson. Harvard (11–9, 3–5) guard Noah Kirkwood took what could have been a game-tying shot over the weekend, and he held the basketball in his hands again with the clock winding down Wednesday night, pump-faking twice with his feet planted beyond the three-point line as Yale guards Bez Mbeng ’25 and Jalen Gabbidon ’22 lunged to contest.
With three seconds left and Harvard guard Luka Sakota open to his right on the top of the key, Kirkwood instead made a late pass. Sakota launched an open attempt from deep that would tie the game at 62, if it fell. The ball soared, and a crowd of 1325 inhaled.
“The shot went up, and you just hold your breath for a second,” Mbeng said. “I definitely held my breath. I was scared.”
Entering Wednesday, Sakota had already hit game-tying three-pointers to send two separate Harvard games — against Iona and Colgate — to overtime this season. Yale head coach James Jones, who had read about those shots in the Harvard game notes that Yale’s sports information director Tim Bennett gave him, said that recent history crossed his mind when Sakota caught the ball.
The ball hit the front of the rim and bounced straight up, nearly rising the full length of the backboard, before falling to the rim again, rolling slowly and dropping to the ground. The crowd’s collective groan drowned the noise of the final buzzer.
“We would’ve had an opportunity to go into overtime [if Sakota hit it], and we feel like we’re strong and we could’ve done well in overtime,” Jones said. “But I’m happy we didn’t have to see it.
“It was eerily similar [to Saturday’s game], but we made enough plays down the stretch to win it,” Jones said earlier in a postgame interview with the News. “We got to do a better job at handling a little bit of pressure at the end and getting good shots offensively, and we didn’t do that.”
Several Yale players raised their arms in relief and celebration after Sakota’s miss as they jogged back to the bench with a 62–59 win, the Bulldogs’ first at Lavietes since Feb. 2016. The back-to-back wins gives Yale its first sweep of Harvard since that season in 2016, the same year it upset Baylor to win the school’s first game in the NCAA Tournament. Wednesday’s game was originally scheduled to take place on Jan. 9 before COVID-19 cases in the Yale program early last month caused its postponement.
Yale captain and guard Jalen Gabbidon ’22 led Yale with 18 points and teamed up with Mbeng and the Elis’ other defenders to quiet the Crimson offense for most of the night. The Bulldogs entered the game leading the Ivy League in field-goal and three-point percentage defense. Harvard shot 42.6 percent from the field and 26.3 percent from beyond the arc, figures that are both in line with Yale’s defensive averages this season. Mbeng occasionally traded with Gabbidon but spent most of the night on Harvard’s leading scorer Kirkwood, limiting him to nine points on three-of-13 shooting from the field and one-of-eight from deep.
They often collaborated. Late in the second half, with Mbeng sliding his feet to deny Kirkwood a driving lane, the Harvard senior stopped, turned and lobbed an errant pass into the hands of Gabbidon, who stomped down the length of the court to finish an and-one layup on the fast break.
“I love guarding really good players,” Mbeng said. “I knew that me and Jalen were gonna switch off [Kirkwood] some bit, so every time I was on him I made sure I played the best defense I could. It’s always great to sweep Harvard — of course I never had that experience, but I wanted to do everything in my power to make that happen.”
Harvard and Yale have been the Ivy League’s two dominant powers of the last decade, with one school having won at least a share of nine of the last 10 Ancient Eight titles.
“I think Bez is naturally more gifted at defense than me,” added Gabbidon, the reigning Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year. “It’s very apparent. He obviously needs to learn, but he’s gonna be way better than I am, I can promise you that. I haven’t taught him much.”
Harvard applied full-court pressure in the closing minutes. The Crimson started the game with a dose of it too, as Harvard forward Mason Forbes stole the ball and drew a foul to put his side up 7–3 after the first couple minutes. Forbes, a 6-foot-9 senior, scored Harvard’s first seven points of the game and finished the night with a career-high 22. Yale’s starting forward Isaiah Kelly ’23 picked up his second foul on the play, sending him to the bench for the rest of the half. With Kelly in foul trouble, forward Matt Knowling ’24 did not leave the floor in the first and finished the game with a team-high 36 minutes.
Forward EJ Jarvis ’23 played another big role against the Crimson, raising the career best he set Saturday night to pull in 11 rebounds in a career-high 29 minutes off the bench as Kelly dealt with foul trouble.
“I’ve seen from him what we expected from him all year,” Jones said of Jarvis, who missed much of the nonconference schedule with injuries. “I think he has the potential to be the best big in the league, and he did a great job tonight … When he comes out of the game, he’s dog tired because he plays so hard, and that’s the way it’s supposed to be.”
Much of Yale’s first-half scoring came in a hurried burst, a two-minute 33-second period midway through the frame during which Yale dropped 15 of its 32 first-half points. A three-pointer at the top of the key from guard Matthue Cotton ’23 preceded four straight buckets from Gabbidon, who powered his way to the rim off the dribble.
Yale guard Azar Swain ’22, who had a quiet night with nine points according to his 19-plus points per game average, sank a fast-break three to make it 30–17 with 7:19 to play in the first. Harvard narrowed the Bulldogs’ lead to 32–26 at halftime.
“I drove a lot last game early to kind of press it a bit,” Gabbidon said of his several takes to the hoop. “I tried to see what they were giving me. They were attacking the ball screens hard defensively, so I was able to turn the corner and get downhill off of it.”
The Elis’ lead entered double digits later in the second and peaked at 44–30 after a layup from Mbeng with 12:13 to play. At that point, Jones said, another memory from Saturday’s game crossed his mind. He saw the time and the lead on the scoreboard and remembered that his technical foul came in a similar situation — up 11 with 12 minutes to play — at the John J. Lee Amphitheater over the weekend.
Following a Forbes dunk a few minutes later that decreased the Yale lead to 10, Jones had Cotton motion to the referee for a timeout. The head coach motioned his palms to the court to emphasize staying calm, but Harvard took advantage of a turnover and offensive foul out of the break, scoring a pair of buckets to make it 48–42.
“I think sometimes you don’t play your game,” Jones said of his team losing its lead in the second half, a phenomenon that also occurred vs. Harvard last weekend, at the road on Princeton and at Brown last month. The Bulldogs held on to win all four games. “You’re playing just to hold the lead … Sometimes it’s easier to try to come back than it is to try to hold onto a lead, and we just have to do a better job.”
Harvard cut the deficit to one point after a Forbes layup with 57 seconds to play but never regained the lead. Jarvis secured a crucial defensive rebound after Kirkwood missed what would have been a game-tying shot near the rim with 19 seconds to play. The 6-foot-8 forward then hit one of two free throws when he got fouled, setting up Sakota’s final attempt at sending the game to overtime.
Yale will hope to pick up two more wins in the same building next month when Lavietes hosts Ivy Madness, the conference’s four-team postseason basketball tournament. Though the Bulldogs have not officially clinched a berth, they are effectively guaranteed a spot with six games still to play in the regular season. A prediction model created by Luke Benz ’19, a biostatistics doctorate student at Harvard and a former president of the Yale Undergraduate Sports Analytics group, gave the Bulldogs a league-leading 98.9 percent chance to make Ivy Madness after last weekend’s slate of games concluded.
Harvard, meanwhile, has a small margin for error if it hopes to play on its home floor in the postseason. Now at 3–5 after consecutive losses to Yale, the injury-ridden Crimson currently sit at fifth place in the Ancient Eight. Three of its six leading scorers this season — starters Chris Ledlum (16.7 points per game) and Idan Tretout (8.5 points per game) along with first-year guard Louis Lesmond (8.2 points per game) — did not dress for Wednesday’s game.
Yale visits Columbia (4–17, 1–8) in New York City on Saturday.