For the third straight season, Yale beat Harvard at Lavietes Pavilion. But this year’s win, a 67-55 romp that kept the Bulldogs perfect atop the Ivy League, was much different than the prior two.
The first victory was more or less a fluke. Yale was a double-digit underdog in 2014, but it pulled out a 74-67 win thanks to big shots from a team that wasn’t known for its shooting. The Bulldogs played a great game to pull the upset and tie the Ivy League race, but they went on to lose the rematch at home by double digits and finished four games behind Harvard.
The second was a fair fight. The two teams were tied in the Ivy standings; Yale hit its three-pointers and Harvard didn’t, which made all the difference. A week later, the Bulldogs and Crimson met again in a playoff, and true to their talent, it went down to the final possession.
But in Saturday’s game, for the first time in this era, Yale was simply better. The Bulldogs (8-0 Ivy) outplayed Harvard (2-6) in the paint and on the perimeter, and their lead was never seriously challenged in the second half.
“It’s an important game anytime you play Yale-Harvard,” Yale coach James Jones said. “Anytime Yale goes up against Harvard, people are going to take a look in the newspaper. Luckily for us tonight, our fans are going to feel good tomorrow morning whenever they pick up their New York Times, or whatever paper they pick up.”
For about 12 minutes, it looked like Yale would be in for a battle. Harvard’s rim-protecting frontcourt held its own defensively, and Brandon Sherrod sat on the bench with two fouls, putting pressure on the Bulldogs’ rotation (already thinned by the absence of Jack Montague for personal reasons).
Then Justin Sears took over. The senior scored 10 points in the next five minutes, thwarting all of Harvard’s defenses — an awkward, left-handed floater over Evan Cummins here; a hook shot over Zena Edosomwan there — as Yale took a 37-26 lead into halftime. Sears finished with a game-high 21 points, though he needed 21 shooting possessions to get there.
“He has a really unorthodox game,” Edosomwan said. “Everything’s really unexpected, and he’s super athletic … It’s hard to guard, because he’s so shifty with the way he moves, and the kind of movements I’ve never seen before.”
Sears was often set up by passes from his guards, who regularly beat their defenders and sent Harvard’s help defense scrambling. Makai Mason scored 15 points, six of which came on carbon-copy runners from the right-hand edge of the lane, one of his favorite spots. Nick Victor bounced back from a rough Friday to dish six assists, adding seven points and 12 rebounds.
“We recognize it’s been a deficiency for our team, and it’s hard to stomach, but they’re trying,” Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said of the Crimson’s perimeter defense. “Our limited ability with quickness and speed there has taken its toll, and inexperience. But hopefully we will be better than that.”
They could have racked up more assists if Yale’s forwards had finished better at the rim. The Bulldogs took 30 shots inside five feet, but only made half, well below their average. “I thought our bigs did a poor job of finishing quickly at the rim. Justin caught it and held it, Brandon caught it and held it, Sam [Downey] caught it and held it. If we just go up strong and finish, I think we would’ve been able to have some easier baskets tonight.”
Though he played only 25 minutes while working back from a thigh injury, Zena Edosomwan had his eighth double-double of the season, scoring 18 points with 10 rebounds. But his teammates shot just 37% from the floor, and Corey Johnson was the only Crimson player to make a three-pointer (4-8 from three, 14 points).
Harvard actually edged Yale on the glass — a rare feat against a team in the top 25 nationally in both offensive and defensive rebound rate — but the hosts couldn’t turn their second chances into points, finishing with .86 points per possession.
The Bulldogs have now won 12 straight games, a streak that dates back two full months. They enter the second half of Ivy play as the sole leader, and their biggest opportunity comes next Friday: A visit to Jadwin Gym. A win there would put Yale two games ahead of the field with only five remaining, in excellent shape to earn their first NCAA tournament bid since 1962.