Tim Tai, Staff Photographer

BOSTON — Before they beat No. 3 Penn Saturday afternoon at Ivy Madness, players on the No. 2 Yale men’s basketball team strode off the bus, walked a few steps through the rain and filed in to watch the second half of the day’s first semifinal: No. 1 Princeton (23–5, 12–3) vs. No. 4 Cornell (15–11, 7–7).

They found seats in the wooden stands of section three. Assistant coaches mostly surveyed the action from the upper-level media seating. Yale head coach James Jones watched courtside sitting next to Yale’s Deputy Director of Athletics Mary Berdo.

The game proceeded at a rabid pace in the second half, going back and forth — with five ties and 10 lead changes — and back and forth before the Tigers broke away from a 73–73 tie with 36 seconds to play on a layup from their star forward, Ivy League Player of the Year Tosan Evbuomwan.

“That was a track meet, wasn’t it?” Jones joked of the Princeton-Cornell semifinal after Yale beat Penn. “I was going to get my spikes and run out there myself a little bit.”

Princeton ultimately won by four, 77–73, before Yale (18–11, 11–3 Ivy) proceeded to warm up on the same court and defeat Penn (12–16, 9–5) once fans filled the arena again later that afternoon.

Speaking to the media after their semifinal win, Jones and Yale guards Azar Swain ’22 and Jalen Gabbidon ’22 were quickly asked to consider the championship bout their win over Penn had just set up. Yale and Princeton will duel for the Ivy Madness crown — and the league’s corresponding automatic bid to March Madness — Sunday at noon. 

IN PHOTOS: Yale men’s basketball beats Penn in Ivy Madness semifinal

“They’re a very good team, they’re just a very good team,” Gabbidon said of Princeton. “But we also believe we’re a very good team. We have confidence [that] if we run our stuff, stick to who we are, and don’t let them take us out of what we do, we’ll have a good chance of winning the ballgame. We’ll see what happens, but we have confidence in what we do, and we’ll play like that tomorrow.”

Although coaches did get a look at Princeton in the gym on Saturday, Jones said he had not thought about the championship game. 

When preparing for Yale’s opponents, Jones often focuses on one game at a time. In an interview with the News last week, Jones said it was “almost impossible” to truly prepare for all three teams Yale might face at Ivy Madness. Speaking to reporters after Princeton’s semifinal, Tigers head coach Mitch Henderson described a similar singular focus on their first game with the Big Red. He said they spent an entire week preparing for Cornell alone, whose unique system and rapid pace of play make preparation especially difficult for opponents.

“It’s interesting, I haven’t thought about the next game tomorrow. I literally have not thought about it,” Jones told the media Saturday about 10 minutes after beating Penn. “I’ll be up all night watching film tonight in preparation for myself mentally … I suspect we’ll digest the scout tonight, and tomorrow morning we’ll get out and get ready to play them.”

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Of course, the Elis are already very familiar with the Tigers, with whom they split a pair of regular-season meetings. Yale won 80–74 on the road in Princeton to snap what was a 10-game Tiger winning streak entering the late January contest. The Tigers then returned the favor in New Haven, beating Yale by six on its home court. Those regular-season results knot the teams’ combined scores at 155–155. Either way, one team will gain the ultimate edge Sunday afternoon in Boston.

Evbuomwan, who was announced as a unanimous selection for Player of the Year last Tuesday, arguably presents Yale’s biggest challenge. A 6-foot-8-inch forward from Newcastle, England, he functions like a point forward, with the ability to finish around the rim or dish the ball to one of the Tigers’ three-point threats on the perimeter.

“He’s so different than anyone I’ve ever been around or coached,” Princeton head coach Mitch Henderson said of Evbuomwan after the Tigers win Saturday. “I think what helps him is not just his talent, but the players around him. It’s very difficult to help. We put him in the middle of the floor. He’s an elite dribbler, really like a point guard. I wouldn’t want to play against him at all.”

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Evbuomwan’s average of 5 assists per game is so high — the league’s second-ranked, Columbia’s Geronimo Rubio De La Rosa, averages 3.3 per game — largely because of Princeton’s shot-making ability. The Tigers average a league-best 11 three-point field goals per game and also own the league’s top three-point shooting percentage, 39.

Princeton senior guards Jaelin Llewellyn, an All-Ivy First Team selection, and Ethan Wright, who was selected to the All-Ivy Second Team, each average more than 14 points per game alongside Evbuomwan. The three rank fourth through sixth on the Ivy League’s scoring leaderboard. 

On the other hand, Yale enters Sunday’s title game with the best three-point percentage defense in the conference. In their first meeting, that defense helped Yale to a 17-point lead at halftime before the Tigers, though they still lost, narrowed the deficit late in the second.

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Barring any unexpected crisis that prevents him from playing, Swain will become tied for Yale’s most career appearances during Sunday’s championship game. When the ball tips off, he and Justin Sears ’16 will both top the program record books with 120 games played.

As of early Sunday, college basketball ratings site KenPom gives the Tigers a 61 percent chance to win. ESPN2 is set to broadcast the championship game.

William McCormack covered Yale men's basketball from 2018 to 2022. He served as Sports Editor and Digital Editor for the Managing Board of 2022 and also reported on the athletic administration as a staff reporter. Originally from Boston, he was in Timothy Dwight College.