Three Thoughts: Yale 69, Hartford 57

For a nine-minute span to start the second half, Yale showed why Hartford coach John Gallagher was able to say afterward, “I know people are going to say Harvard, but I think Yale is the best basketball team in the Ivy League right now.”

After slogging through a first half and being stymied at every cut and screen by what has turned out to be an extremely tough Hartford defense, Yale exploded coming out of the locker room, getting good looks in transition and outscoring the Hawks – who came into the game in the top 15 nationally in scoring defense – by a 25-7 margin over the first nine-minutes of the second half. As they have all season, the Hawks battled and clawed (almost literally) until the end, and made things a little too uncomfortable for James Jones’ liking, although the result was never truly in doubt in a 69-57 win Sunday afternoon at Lee Amphitheater that pushed Yale to 6-2 on the season.

(photo courtesy: Yale athletics)
Junior Justin Sears led Yale with a team-high 14 points against Hartford on Sunday. (photo courtesy: Yale athletics)

“If we’re just composed and take care of the ball, we turn a 20-point lead into a 30-point lead in your own building and the game’s over,” Yale coach James Jones said. “They were taking risks and giving us chances to do that, we missed layups and we missed a dunk. Trying to do things that we don’t do. This team hasn’t had the luxury of having leads like that in the past. Now we’re getting them and we have to be smart enough to play with it.”

Here are my thoughts:

1.  Yale needs to get out and run –  The Bulldogs don’t really have a true point guard at the moment, and – although they will have to execute in the half-court offense, too – are at their best against teams like Hartford when they get out in transition. In that run to start the second half, about half of them came in transition, including back-to-back three-pointers from sharpshooter Jack Montague, who had cooled off the last couple of games after a red-hot start.

“I’m sure I’m on people’s scout right now as a three-point shooter,” Montague said. “Like you saw in the second half, when the energy is high on defense, we’re able to push the ball, get the ball down low early to our post players, and that opens me up, especially against a team like Hartford that’s a packline defense.”

Said Gallagher, “I’d say six of their baskets to start the second half were off of our turnovers. So our offense was actually hurting us at that point on defense. We missed some close-outs and did some other little things wrong, but it starts with the turnovers.”

Unfortunately for Yale, when it comes to Ivy play, teams like Columbia, Dartmouth, Princeton, and perhaps even Brown and Penn as well if things continue the way they are this season, will employ a gameplan that looks a lot what Hartford tried to do – and had some success – and they’ll have to deal with it. They should get a good test Wednesday at Bryant before traveling to Gampel Pavilion Friday night to battle UConn.

2. Hartford is going to be a pain to play this season –  Gallagher seems to have found a niche with his defense, mostly man-to-man, although he’ll show a 1-3-1 at times just to throw the opponent off. Yolonzo Moore has been an especially good on-ball defender, and freshman John Carroll adds size inside. But it’s a true team effort. For now at least, Hartford is 5-2 and is buying into the effort needed at the defensive end.

“Their ball-screen defense is really the biggest part,” Jones said. “They showed a couple different things that they do. We needed to find out the areas that we could expose them and it was hard.”

The Hawks some interesting games to finish non-conference including Holy Cross and Rider (as well as guarantee games against Notre Dame and Texas A&M). The biggest problem may come against the lower-level teams of America East, where this type of style may allow them to hang around with the slower pace. But it doesn’t seem to hurt Tony Bennett and Virginia, so …

3. Both teams need their best player at their best at some point – Sears was in foul trouble for the second-straight game, but was able to survive it for a decent second half. Even at a sub-par level (missing a dunk and layup among others), Sears finished with 14 points, 11 rebounds, and five blocks.

“It’s taken me a while to get my legs back and to find out how teams are guarding me this season,” Sears said. “My teammates spoke to me at halftime and told me to block out the past and just play my game.”

Meanwhile, Hartford senior Mark Nwakamma – a two-time All-America East selection – scored just four points (on 2-for-11 shooting) and had just three rebounds. Even though the Hawks are 5-2, Nwakamma is averaging just 9.4 points and 5.0 rebounds per game and hasn’t scored more than 15 in any game. From a glass half-full standpoint, though, once Nwakamma gets going, the Hawks will be that much better.

“Our best player can’t go 2-for-11 if we’re going to win this game,” Gallagher said. “Is that them? I think it’s a combination of them and Mark. He wants to be an orthopedic surgeon and he’s one of the smartest kids I’ve ever been around, and I’ve coached in the Ivy League (Penn). He’s a very conscientious kid, and he will get it going, but right now, it’s just not going for him.”

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