Yale Finds a Way to Keep Home Streak Alive

Two-time Ivy League Player of the Year Justin Sears is gone. Brandon Sherrod is no longer in a Yale uniform. Neither are Nick Victor, Khaliq Ghani, and, yes, Jack Montague.

Thursday night, preseason Ivy Player of the Year Makai Mason wasn’t there either. He is recovering from foot surgery that will keep him out all season. Jordan Bruner, one of the highest touted freshmen ever to enroll at Yale never played because of a knee injury.

But the swagger the Yale basketball program built over the last couple of highly successful seasons? That was on full display no matter who was wearing the white jerseys, as the Bulldogs gutted out their 15th straight home win over a good Lehigh team, 89-81 in overtime.

Yale’s last home loss was Feb. 21, 2015 to Columbia.

“This type of win talks to the program we have now at Yale,” coach James Jones said. “We knew that we had a lot of players that could contribute on this team and they were going to show it. In this case, it just happened because of injuries, but we have depth.”

The Bulldogs (2-0), who were coming off an upset win at Washington also without Bruner, trailed 71-64 on a Tim Kempton dunk with 3:45 left and didn’t appear to have any answer for the preseason Patriot League Player of the Year. But Blake Reynolds, who played just 13.1% of the minutes for Yale last season, scored on a tough layup, and then hit a 3-pointer to tie it at 71-71 with 1:17 left.

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Alex Copeland hit a layup with a high degree of difficulty to tie it again at 73-73 with 26.4 seconds left. And then things got a little bit nutty. Or a lot nutty.

Trey Phills knocked the ball away from Austin Price and as Price rolled to the ground, Kempton (and it looked like Price as well) started to call timeout. Except, Lehigh had none left and it was a technical foul. With 1.0 second left in a tie game.

Oops.

Now, before the 2015-16 season, it would be like any other technical foul with Yale getting two shots and the ball, but the NCAA now has Class B or administrative technical, which applies here, so the Bulldogs only got one shot, which they gave to senior Sam Downey, who missed. Lehigh got the ball under the new rules, but did not get a shot off.

Lehigh led 80-78 with 1:51 left in the extra session on a Price dunk, but Kempton fouled out 30 seconds later (the fifth foul was not questionable, but a couple of earlier ones might have been), and the Bulldogs finished the game on an 11-1 run, the biggest shot a 3-pointer from freshman Miye Oni to break an 80-80 tie with 51 seconds left.

“We’ve gotten contributions from everyone in both games and to me that’s the most encouraging sign for us,” Jones said. “That will carry us forward this season, that kind of balance.”

It is extremely early in the campaign, and you saw some of the problems Yale will face without Mason this season. But against what should be a Patriot League favorite in Lehigh (0-2), you also saw how the Bulldogs may not know how much they’re supposed to struggle. Five players were in double figures, led by sophomore Copeland with 20 points and six assists. Copeland played just 4.2% of Yale’s minutes a year ago, almost all of them with games decided. Even this season, he likely expected to be picking up whatever minutes Mason didn’t play, which wasn’t going to be many.

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One guy who knew he would be on the floor plenty was Downey, and he planned accordingly, getting into tremendous shape in the summer, and setting out to show that he wasn’t a career backup, he was just behind some tremendous players in the post. Downey had his troubles with Kempton, who finished with 30 points and 11 rebounds, but did score 17 points and add seven rebounds. In a college basketball world where almost everyone talks of the NBA or Europe, Downey has no such ambitions after this season, and just wants to make his final season of basketball memorable.

“I had two great mentors last year and for my first three years,” Downey said. “This is my last year playing basketball and I want to make the best of it, so I guess you could say I have a chip on my shoulder to try to prove I can play.”

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Reynolds and Oni each had 13 points and Anthony Dallier added 12 for Yale, who faces stiff tests (to say the least) in Virginia and Pitt in three days. Even if Bruner does play, the Bulldogs will be heavy underdogs, but—even if they don’t win either of those games—they don’t look likely to collapse and fall out of the inaugural Ivy League Tournament.

Brett Reed, whose team started 0-7 last season before recovering to go 13-5 in the Patriot League and host the final only to lose to upstart Holy Cross, was left to lament the lack of defense (222nd in efficiency) that was most of the reason the Mountain Hawks struggled at times last season. In addition to Kempton, offensive weapons like Kyle Leufroy (20 points), Ross, and shooters like freshman Pat Andree (11 points) should help a team that was 14th nationally (39.3%) in 3-point shooting last season.

But, even with plenty of experience back, a date with Princeton Sunday followed by a trip to Mississippi State and Arkansas State (which beat Georgetown Thursday), means Reed hopes to not have to wait as long as last season to grab a win.

“Defensively, we let Yale shoot 50 percent in the second half and overtime and just couldn’t get enough stops when we needed them,” Reed said. “That’s what I’m most frustrated about, we just didn’t make the right decisions and get in the right places.”

And didn’t quite have enough swagger on this night.

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