Duren, Yale Keep Heartbreaking Losses In Perspective

Javier Duren shoots free throws toward the Yale student section late in Saturday's Ivy League playoff.
Javier Duren shoots free throws toward the Yale student section late in Saturday’s Ivy League playoff.

Three years ago, I sat in the bowels of Jadwin Gym and watched Zack Rosen struggle through the worst press conference of his life. His Quakers had just lost their season finale at Princeton, knocking them out of contention for the Ivy League title — so Rosen, then a senior and the eventual Player of the Year, would never get to play in the NCAA tournament. As questions came and went, Rosen mumbled soft, terse answers, his eyes burning holes through the table in front of him, clearly still focused on the opportunity that had passed his team by.

The lifespan of a college athlete is short, and relatively few get the chance to reach the pinnacle of their sport. Since losing teams customarily speak first at postseason press conferences, captains are whisked away mere moments after defeats, placed in front of cameras and microphones, and forced to compose their thoughts on the fly. So I’ve become accustomed to losing players, especially in playoffs or tournament games — and double-especially after last-minute losses — showing the same expression Rosen did at Princeton that evening: eyes glazed over, speaking softly, trying to process the disappointment they’d just experienced.

Javier Duren, a three-year starter for Yale who earned All-Ivy honors this year, had every right to be glum after Saturday’s Ivy League playoff. A week earlier, the Bulldogs were seconds away from winning the outright Ivy League championship and reaching the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1962. Ten minutes earlier, Duren had just missed a shot that would have forced overtime against Harvard, watching Crimson students storm the floor in celebration of their fourth straight dance. After coming so close with Yale’s best team in decades, Duren would never have the opportunity to play in March Madness.

But from the tone of Duren’s voice in the postgame press conference, it was impossible to know that he’d been on the losing side. The senior spoke confidently and expressively, giving thoughtful answers to reporters’ questions. When asked about his final shot — the one that could have kept Yale’s tournament dreams alive but fell tantalizingly off the rim — Duren’s eyes lit up. “Oh, I thought it was in! The ball took a crazy bounce,” he said. “In a situation like that, I think it’s hard to get a better look.”

On the intensity of the game: “Coming in, we knew how high the stakes were for this game, and for it to be Yale-Harvard, we knew that it would be physical. We came in prepared, and really, as much as I want to be upset, it’s awesome just to be a part of this experience. How many people get to play for Yale-Harvard for an NCAA bid?”

On how, seriously, how can he be so poised after a loss like that? “Man, I’m just blessed. That’s the only word that I can say. Not many people get to be a part of this experience. I had my parents come in from St. Louis, drove 14 hours just to see this game. It’s probably the most fun game I’ve been a part of in my Yale career. As much as I want to win — I’m a competitor just like anyone else — I can’t help but be humbled and be proud of not only myself, but the other guys who were battling and fighting alongside me.”

Duren had a similar reaction to last week’s heartbreaking loss at Dartmouth:

The defeat was perhaps just as meaningful for Yale coach James Jones. In 16 years with the Bulldogs, Jones has finished in the top half of the league 15 times, but he has never reached the NCAA tournament — the longest-tenured D-I head coach without a March Madness appearance.

Among Ivy League fans, this has given Jones a reputation as a coach who can’t win the big game. This year, his team did win the big game. But then it lost the next two big games, and fair or not, Jones’ label will live on.

After Saturday’s game, Jones allowed a brief moment to rue two toss-up calls that went Harvard’s way in the final two minutes. (Those followed a string of whistles that favored Yale, which followed another stretch that went against them — hey, it’s a playoff for Ivy Saturday Referees, too.) But in reflecting on the last time he came so close, when Yale lost a three-team playoff to Penn in 2002, Jones made it clear he was proud of his team’s accomplishment, dancing or not.

“Penn was a lot better than us [in 2002]. We scraped and clawed to get to the point where we tied them,” he said. “Here, in this situation, I felt the teams were evenly matched. We came out on the short end of the stick today, two times out of three, but I’d lace them up and play anytime, and feel good about going into the game every time.”

If a few bounces had gone the other way and Yale ended its five-decade drought, the Bulldogs would have had no shortage of heroes. Duren had a rough stretch of missed shots early in the second half; after complaining about two no-calls on his drives, he committed a silly foul in the backcourt out of frustration, sending him to the bench with three. But he returned moments later and took over down the stretch, getting to the line and knocking down every free throw to lead Yale back from an eight-point deficit in the final five minutes. Justin Sears was limited offensively in the second half, but he still finished with a team-high 13 points and was his usual self on defense (three steals and a block).

Perhaps the most memorable performance came from rookie guard Makai Mason. Early in the second half, Mason took a Jonah Travis elbow to the head while fighting for a loose rebound, leaving a visible mark on his face but no whistle from the referees — an injustice that was compounded by a Wesley Saunders three-pointer in transition on the other end. But Mason remained fearless, driving into contact and fighting for key offensive rebounds despite his size. His jumper from the second block, which gave Yale a 49-48 lead in the final two minutes, could have been legendary.

Instead, those performances will be mostly lost to history, while Yale’s infamous streak lives on. The Bulldogs will finish their season in a different tournament (they appear to be squarely on the NIT bubble). That may be a disappointment compared to the so-close dreams of March Madness, but with an Ivy League title and a 22-10 record, it will still go down as a memorable season.

“I look forward to more basketball this season. It’s not over yet,” Jones said. “I expect to get a bid from a tournament, and hopefully it’s the NIT.”


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