For the 18th straight season, Yale will finish in the top half of the Ivy League. Miye Oni lifted the Bulldogs (7-5) to an 83-73 victory at Columbia (5-7) on Saturday, continuing one of the Ancient Eight’s most remarkable streaks and clinching a spot in the four-team conference tournament.
What’s the secret? “We get good players,” said James Jones, Yale’s coach for all 18 of those seasons. “We’ve got a lot of guys that can play. Being able to do what we did this year down two starters [Jordan Bruner and Makai Mason] speaks to the level of talent that we’ve been able to bring into the program.”
Yale’s fortunes have risen and fallen with Miye Oni all season — the Bulldogs are 7-0 in Ivy play when he scores in double figures, and 0-5 when he doesn’t — and it was the same story Saturday. Oni was a facilitator in the first half (six rebounds, five assists), but he missed all four of his shots, and though Yale took a 10-point lead into halftime it was based on Columbia’s shooting struggles.
After the intermission, Oni simply took over. He scored 18 of Yale’s first 24 points in the second half, getting most of them on physical drives from the top of the key. In one sequence, Oni scored on four straight possessions by beating four different defenders off the dribble, as Columbia coach Jim Engles rotated matchups in vain (Lukas Meisner, Gabe Stefanini, Mike Smith, Kyle Castlin) to try to find someone capable of stopping the sophomore.
“He just drove the ball. He figured out that he couldn’t be guarded going to the basket, and he did a great job going to the rim,” Jones said.
Oni finished with 26 points — 24 in the second half — while flirting with a triple-double (eight assists, nine rebounds). When he slowed down later in the half, Trey Phills exploited his own mismatches, running the floor or beating defenders from the wing to score 16 points on nine shooting possessions.
The one-on-one style was nearly unrecognizable for Yale, which typically moves the ball to get shots. Only four of its 16 second-half baskets were assisted, down from their season average of 62% (14th in the nation).
“They just started to isolate us. As the game starts to go on, sometimes you just try too hard. We knew what they were trying to do, but they were getting by us and we were starting to get spread out. When teams start to do that, you have to be more compact, and even though you may get beat off the dribble you have to get help from your teammates.”
Columbia’s outside shooting, so strong at Levien Gym this year, failed it big-time on Saturday. The Lions got good looks in the first half, but nearly all of them clanked off the rim, going 1-12 from three-point range and finishing the period with 27 points. To encapsulate their struggles, Patrick Tape found himself with the ball wide open underneath the hoop late in the half, only to miss an uncontested dunk that would have pulled the hosts within one point. Yale reeled off a 7-0 run in the final minute, and Columbia never again got so close.
Yet they never fully went away either, matching Oni’s outburst with consistent points of their own. As in the previous night, the Lions got to the foul line often — led by Mike Smith, who got seven of his 17 second-half points from the stripe — to compensate for their lack of shooting, pulling within one score a couple times. But Columbia couldn’t get enough stops, surrendering 1.24 points per possession in the second half.
The Bulldogs are now guaranteed the third seed in the Ivy League Tournament in two weeks; just like last year, they will likely face Harvard in the semifinals (though it could change things by beating Penn this Friday). It is still not clear what role Makai Mason will play; he sat out both games this weekend after making his season debut against Harvard last week.
“He just tweaked his foot,” Jones said. “Hopefully, he’ll be able to practice this week, we’ll get him to play this weekend, and we’ll go from there.”
Despite Saturday’s loss, Columbia is still in the driver’s seat for the fourth and final seed. The Lions are tied for fourth with Cornell — one game ahead of Brown and Princeton, who are still in the race alive — but they would win the tiebreaker as of today based on their earlier win over Harvard. Columbia is guaranteed a playoff spot if it sweeps Dartmouth and Harvard on the road next weekend, and even a split would leave it in good shape, forcing another contender to upset one of the league’s top teams. (See a full rundown of tiebreaker scenarios here.)
“I remember our freshman year, you have one bad weekend and you’re out of it, you have no chance,” said Nate Hickman, who had 17 points on Columbia’s senior night. “So you’re just playing to try and upset someone else or make a different postseason tournament. Having the tournament now, you still have a chance to make your dreams come true.”