Three Thoughts: Yale 62, Cornell 51 (Happy Birthday, Coach Jones!)

As much as we like numbers, they sometimes don’t tell the whole story or accurately predict a snapshot in time, i.e. a 40-minute basketball game over the course of a fairly long season.

Friday night, though, one look at the stat sheet – or more appropriately, the KenPom numbers – could have given you a pretty good idea of what was going to happen between Yale and Cornell. The Big Red entered with some stellar defensive numbers that worried the Bulldogs, 69th nationally in defensive efficiency, 34th in eFG%.

And sure enough, the Yale offense had all kinds of trouble scoring, shooting 5-20 from three-point range and never looking comfortable (Yale turned it over 16 times, something Cornell had not done exceptionally this season).

That much went according to plan for upset-minded Cornell. What happened at the other end did not. It did, however, match the script. The Big Red were a poor 302nd in offensive efficiency, 312th in eFG% and were matched up against a top-100 defense in Yale. Cornell was also without second-leading scorer Robert Hatter (illness), and the result was, well, predictable.

“You know what, the non-flow of the game was probably to our advantage,” Cornell coach Bill Courtney said. “We kind of wanted to make the game ratty against such a good offensive team. They have five guys on the floor that can really hurt you, plus they’re a great rebounding team. It was our plan to make the game sloppy and force those guys into some turnovers. Fortunately for us, we got the turnovers, we just couldn’t convert them into anything. We missed six layups in the first half and six more in the second half. When you don’t convert, it really hurts you.”

Cornell managed just 0.56 points per possession in the first half and improved only slightly in the second as Yale held them at bay in a 62-51 victory that wasn’t easy on the eye at Lee Amphitheater. The Big Red not only played without Hatter, but leading scorer Shonn Miller was limited to just 20 minutes – three in the second half (where he picked up three fouls) – before fouling out.

Meanwhile, Yale (19-7, 8-1) didn’t get much out of guards Jack Montague and Makai Mason, but did plenty to move to 8-1 in the Ivy, clinching its fifth straight winning conference season. But obviously the Bulldogs’ sights are set on bigger goals, starting with hosting Maodo Lo – who torched Brown for 33 points Friday night – and Columbia Saturday night in New Haven.

“We didn’t shoot the ball well today, especially from behind the arc,” Yale coach James Jones – who celebrated his 51st birthday Friday – said. “The fact that we got multiple, multiple offensive rebounds on a couple of possessions (16 in all, 44.4%) really helped. The first possession of the second half we had the ball for like a minute and 15 seconds before we got fouled. Javier Duren, Justin Sears, Armani Cotton, Greg Kelley all did a great job on the glass and that helps when you don’t shoot well.”

Here are my three thoughts from Payne Whitney Gym:

1. Yale’s depth was key – Jack Montague had made 14 of his last 22 three-point shots and entered Friday as a career 49.1% shooter from behind the arc, but he just didn’t have it against Cornell, missing his first four shots by a decent margin and finishing 2-10 from the field. Meanwhile, freshman Makai Mason was 5-6 from three last weekend at Princeton and Penn, but he spent most of the night in foul trouble. Up stepped senior Armani Cotton, whose stats won’t blow you away, but make no mistake, he’s been huge for Yale this season at both ends of the floor. He was a career 29% three-point shooter before this season, but has shown the ability to hit open shots when needed, doing it twice Friday and finishing with his second double-double, 10 points and 11 rebounds.

“What’s great about Armani is that he flies under the radar,” Jones said. “People don’t really understand how good a player he is and how much he does for us. It’s very hard to beat us when he gets what he has tonight.”

2. Offense-less Cornell – Galal Cancer tied a career-high with 19 points, but 14 came in the second half. In fact, Cancer and Devin Cherry had 14 each in the second half to account for 28 of Cornell’s 33 points. That’s not surprising, of course, with Miller limited to three minutes and Hatter out, so maybe it’s unfair to look at this game when assessing Cornell’s offensive woes.  Others have already this season, and Bill Courtney knows that’s an area his team will have to get better next season. A guy like sophomore David Onuorah would be a good place to start, he is a big defensive presence and has size that not too many guys in the Ivy have at 6’9” and a solid 230 pounds. But he’s only averaging 2.7 points per game for his career and has taken just 48 shots this season despite starting all 25 games. Saturday’s game won’t get too much notice, but they would like to win at Brown to get back to .500 and have a chance to finish there after going just 1-13 in the Ivy last season.

“They do such a great job of protecting the paint and us not being a great three-point shooting team, on some nights we may make some, but on most nights we don’t shoot it very well, and so we’re trying to attack the rim,” Courtney said. “But they have some big guys in there, so that definitely affected us. It’s tough to get to the rim against them.”

3. Five-game tournament – Friday went as expected as Cornell and Penn would have had trouble with Yale and Harvard, respectively, but neither was even at full strength (Tony Hicks was suspended for the weekend for Penn). With both teams now at 8-1, things get more interesting on Saturday with Princeton at Harvard  and Columbia at Yale. The Bulldogs are home again next weekend for Penn and Princeton while Harvard goes to Cornell and Columbia, before Yale makes its way to Lavietes Pavilion on Friday, March 6, the last weekend of the season (Yale finishes at Dartmouth while Harvard hosts Brown to end).

So, as Yogi Berra would say, it’s getting late early. It’s hard to see either team slipping up more than once heading into the final weekend, and – despite the way things looked heading into the Ivy campaign – it may take 13-1 to get the job done after all.

“I said to the team that it’s great to get a win when you don’t play your best,” Jones said. “We haven’t played that poorly offensively shooting the ball besides the half against Harvard (that they scored 11 points) probably all season. We’ve been pretty good. We didn’t move it enough, but those things are going to happen sometimes. We fought through the adversity, which was good to see.”

Bonus) Happy Birthday, Coach –
I asked Jones if there was birthday cake, and he said, “No time to celebrate now. We’ll celebrate on Sunday. Big game tomorrow against Columbia.” Life of a coach.

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