Yale 79, Penn 58: Justin Sears Carries Bulldogs

PHILADELPHIA – There’s just something about Justin Sears’ game that doesn’t seem to allow him to get the credit he sometimes deserves.

Even from his own coach.

“The thing about Justin is he’s an enigma,” Yale coach James Jones said after Sears tied a career-high with 31 points in Yale’s 79-58 win over Penn at The Palestra Saturday night. “He’s a tremendous player. Sometimes I don’t understand some of the things he does, but he has his own way about him, and his way is a good way. When he’s playing at the top his game, especially in this league, he’s very hard to stop.

“The problem we have with Justin is like tonight he goes for 31 and 9. I honestly could sit here and tell you he could have gotten 40 and 20. That’s a lot to put on a kid, but every time I look at him, I expect more. I’m going to miss him next year, because he does what he does and he does it so seamlessly, and you tend to expect more out of him because of that.”

Game on from Philadelphia! #TMMLegacy

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Despite being the reigning Ivy League Player of the Year, winning conference Player of the Week a record amount including four (and two consecutive) this season, Sears doesn’t exactly have a conventional game: he’s not a good outside shooter, he often looks like he’s out of control, and – listed at 6’8” – doesn’t tower over other post players, even in the Ivy League.

Maybe that’s why he often gets left off national lists of the best players in the country, even among mid-majors.

One thing is for sure. Without Sears, Yale would have been in big trouble Saturday night and therefore in the Ivy League race the way Princeton is playing. As you probably know by now, Jack Montague is out indefinitely, Makai Mason is banged up and has drawn increased focus from defenses, and there isn’t another Yale player who has any confidence in his outside shot right now.

“(Sears) is a horse,” Penn coach Steve Donahue said. “He’s relentless on the boards, uses his length so well, knows what he does well, doesn’t try to go out of his comfort zone. When he plays hard, which I think he did, he’s as good a player as there is.”

Yale is 2-for-18 in its last two games, 5-for-29 in its last three, and the last triple hit by anyone but Mason was 50 minutes of game time ago when Victor hit a corner three against Harvard last week. And Penn (10-13. 4-5) was a team that cut have beat Yale, the Quakers were within 43-41 on a Matt Jones three with 13:30 left and appeared to have plenty of momentum, both in the game in the season, whereas the Bulldogs were clearly struggling on many fronts.

This shot chart shows Yale basically eschewed any type of outside game at all:

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But Sears finished with 18 points and 7 rebounds in the second half alone and simply was not going to let Yale lose. Can Sears carry the Bulldogs through four more games like this and a potential playoff with Princeton? Probably not, but he might be able to long enough for the confidence and health of his teammates to return from wherever they’ve gone.

You know who else wasn’t completely thrilled with Sears’ performance? Sears. When he looked at the stats, he should his head because he wanted one more rebound to get to 10 and when I informed him he tied his career-high, he mentioned one more free throw would have done the trick.

“I missed a few bunnies at the start,” Sears said. “I just needed to focus a little bit more, and my teammates found me in good spots. I got on the boards and got rolling.”

And that’s how you get to be what Justin Sears is for Yale.

Game 94: Yale at Penn – The cathedral. #TMMLegacy

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What else did we learn at The Palestra Saturday?:

  1. Yale could use a week off

Mason took yet another hard fall and didn’t really look the same after that, finishing with just nine points, just the third time that’s happened against Division I competition this season. Teams seem to have gotten wise to his crossover stepback three, and the only one he hit Saturday (very early in the game) was really a lucky bounce. He has been most affected by the loss of Montague.

Neither Nick Victor nor Anthony Dallier looked confident at all shooting the ball Saturday and Khaliq Ghani played so poorly Friday that Jones went to freshman Trey Phills for his usual minutes, even though Phills had barely played a meaningful minute all season (Phills did OK in 10 minutes).

In the end, Yale – somewhat miraculously – ended up at 1.22 points per possession, mostly thanks to Sears, although Brandon Sherrod, and Sam Downey (who has been solid of late) helped the cause. The Bulldogs also kept its turnover rate to only 12.3%.

Just as they couldn’t stay as hot as they were, it’s hard to see them staying this cold, especially next weekend at home. But, as I said before, they easily could have lost this game and didn’t.

2) Penn will be back soon

Saying Steve Donahue will be dominating the Ivy like he was at Cornell is a massive stretch, but Penn is already in the top half of the Ivy and shouldn’t drop further than that if Donahue keeps this team intact. As was painfully obvious Saturday, however, he is missing a solid post player to combat the more physical Ivy League (then when he left, at least). If he can find someone like a Jeff Foote, who can take up space and be athletic enough to score every once a while to go with Jake Silpe and Jackson Donahue, look out.

“They’re such a good, physical, older basketball team,” Donahue said. “They took advantage of that and give them credit. We lost our legs a little bit in the second half, and missed some shots we made in the first half and have been making lately.”

3) Schedule not in Yale’s favor

The Bulldogs have not only gotten each Ivy opponent at its healthiest (although Darien Nelson-Henry barely played in the first meeting), but the four-game road trip they were dealt was tough and draining at this time of year. They survived, but Yale would still probably rather have Princeton’s schedule, with Columbia at home.

Yale is also left to wonder, as it was last year, how things might be different if Princeton had dropped one of the overtime games it played already.

But as Jones says, it doesn’t really matter, does it?

“Regardless of what happened last night, we had to win tonight,” Jones said. “And then we have to win next weekend and the weekend after that. Everybody’s in the same boat now. All we needed to do is try to take care of business as best we can. One game at a time. It’s coachspeak, I know, but that’s what we have to do.”

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