Yale 59, Harvard 50: Home-Court Advantage Long Time Coming

NEW HAVEN, Conn. – There have been a few times that I’ve seen Lee Amphitheater full and rocking, and it’s one of my favorite sights in all the sporting world: an ancient cathedral whose history can be heard – even from the rafters – with every bounce of the ball and gasp of the crowd.

Alas, my recollections of Yale’s septuagenarian home growing up are mostly of the place being packed to see the other team, which doesn’t necessarily mean they were cheering for Pete Carril and Princeton or Fran Dunphy and Penn or even Steve Donahue and Cornell, but they were certainly the main attraction, and on the other nights of the Ivy season? Well, Ingalls Rink and the Yale hockey team was down the street.

There was the 2001-02 campaign where Yale overcame losses to not one, but two Division III teams to make an improbable Ivy run that ended in a three-team playoff, with the Bulldogs beating Princeton, but losing to Penn at Lafayette (darn coin flips). To finish the regular season, Yale beat Harvard and Dartmouth behind a raucous home crowd and a young coach named James Jones. They went on to win at Rutgers in the first round of the NIT, and – when bidding for games was in vogue – the school not only ponied up the fee to host the second round against Tennessee Tech, but rented out the 10,000-seat New Haven Coliseum and spent $50,000 to give away tickets, of which I was glad to take one and watch Yale, unfortunately, lose.

It would be more than a decade before Jones would see the postseason again, going to the CIT final in 2014, and although he has done a better job with the program than anyone in the last half-century (at least), gaining traction for a consistent fanbase is not easy at Yale, where hockey still comes first (they did win a national title three years ago after all).

Perhaps the loudest I have ever heard Lee Amphitheater was an event that didn’t involve Yale at all, the 2011 Ivy playoff between Princeton and Harvard, which Doug Davis famously won at the buzzer.

But on the road this season, the number of Yale fans are growing, even at places like Dartmouth, Princeton and Penn. And Friday night, granted they were playing rival Harvard and the game was on national television, but the sell-out crowd of 2,543 was there largely in appreciation of what Yale has done not only this season, but in the past two or three, becoming a legitimate Ivy League contender, not easy to do when you haven’t been to the NCAA Tournament in 54 years.

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Will it translate in finally putting another number next to that 1962 on that banner in a couple of weeks? Only time (and likely Princeton) will tell. But for Friday, it was what James Jones dreamed it would be when he first came to New Haven to take over a struggling, no-hope program in 1998.

“We’re in first place,” Jones said. “We have been since the first day the league started. We’ve had a nice run the last couple of years. The best part is to have the students support our basketball team. The President (Peter Salovey) is sitting at center court, and it’s a great thing for the school to support your program.”

Yale’s win Friday was its first at home over Harvard since 2011 and marks its first sweep of the season series since 2008.

“When people ask how your season was, they ask how your did and if you beat Harvard, so it was nice to get my first home win of my career over them,” Justin Sears said.

Saturday against Dartmouth? Yale has a chance to complete its first undefeated regular season at Payne Whitney Gym ever, and it opened in 1932. However, there is a matter of a rematch of the 2013 NCAA hockey title game up the street in Hamden against Quinnipiac. But more of them will be back than they would have a few, even three years ago.

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What else did we learn in New Haven on Friday?:

1) Yale did enough to win, but …

The Bulldogs shot 5-9 from three-point range in the first half, which was surely a relief, but still finished the night at just 0.95 points per possession, still reeling from the loss of Jack Montague, which is now permanent.

(My game story explains how the team and Yale student section honored Montague before the game.)

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Anthony Dallier was scoreless in 29 minutes and with Khaliq Ghani struggling again, Jones’ go-to guy off the bench seems to be freshman Trey Phills, who did drain a three, but was only 2-6 from the field in 11 minutes, and hadn’t played at ALL in a big spot until last week.

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Jones insisted his team played well offensively at Penn, and the numbers back him up. Despite just one three-pointer, they were a robust 1.22 ppp. But Princeton has now passed Yale in both offensive efficiency and three-point percentage in Ivy play (Yale finished 6-17 Friday), and it’s been coming for a while. Nick Victor finished with 9 points and 11 rebounds and hit a massive first-half three-pointer (the first from anyone but Makai Mason in four games), but passed up what seemed like a few open looks.

Yale (19-6, 10-1) does not take a lot of threes (278th and dropping) and that’s fine, but the difference between them winning the Ivy and not might be getting someone to knock down an open jumper when everyone collapses on Sears, Brandon Sherrod (who missed his first three shots Friday), and Mason.

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“We pride ourselves on three things: rebounding, defending, and sharing the ball, and if you look at the stat sheet, you can go check, check, check in those three spots and that helped us win the basketball game,” Jones said.

2) Yale may not need the offense for now

As it did against Penn and largely here against Harvard, Yale may be able to survive the next three games with just its defense alone, which is firmly in first efficiency-wise in the Ivy, 22nd nationally. Neither Dartmouth (6th) nor Cornell (8th), Yale’s next two Ivy opponents, have done much offensively this season, but then a game at Columbia now.

It’s possible that Princeton’s win tonight may be a slight benefit for the Bulldogs, at least in timing. Wins over Dartmouth and Cornell would mean Columbia is eliminated before that final game, and while guys like Maodo Lo will not need much motivation in his final collegiate home contest, it’s a little different knowing the NCAA dream is done.

Of course, that didn’t exactly work for Yale last year, did it?

3) Harvard is struggling for motivation

Harvard played without point guard Tommy McCarthy, and Tommy Amaker played senior Zena Edosomwan just 12 minutes (and he went scoreless). Some of it was foul trouble, but it’s obvious the Crimson are in flux right now. No one knows what the roster will look like this time next season, and after so many years of huge games, finding motivation for playing out the string is proving to be very difficult right now. Which is a shame for Yale, who would give the nicest Christmas cards Harvard has ever seen should it find a way to somehow knock off Princeton next weekend.

“They’re a veteran team,” Amaker said. “Physically, they’re strong. They’ve done a great job with being relentless on the glass, very hard to get second-chance points on and then they get them on you. That’s why they’re leading the league.”

Good night from New Haven. Only one home game left for Yale. #TMMLegacy

A photo posted by Ray Curren (@goldenbally) on

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