On Saturday, it will be exactly five years since one of the toughest nights in recent Yale men’s basketball history. Leading by five points in the final minute against a Dartmouth team that was playing just for pride, the Bulldogs lost in perhaps the most excruciating manner possible: a buzzer-beater by Gabas Maldunas off an inbound play. The Ivy League title trophy – set to be awarded to Yale – was quickly covered and hustled out of Leede Arena and Hanover.
After losing a tiebreaker to Harvard the following week, their NCAA Tournament drought reached 53 years, and – having graduated four contributing seniors – who knew when they would get another chance the way Harvard and Princeton were trending?
But Yale coach James Jones (then just 16 years into his tenure) maintained the next summer and preseason that he didn’t spend a whole lot of time thinking about what could have been, what good did it do?
Here is the winning Gabas Maldunas basket. Yale, obviously, crushed. https://t.co/YDJrm1UFRL
— Ray Curren (@currenrr) March 8, 2015
All Jones and the Bulldogs have done since is go 52-17 in conference play since, not only hoisting that elusive trophy, but winning an NCAA Tournament game the next year. They would return to the NCAAs in 2019 and Friday night wrapped up its second outright (and fourth shared) Ivy title in six years, fending off a game challenge from Dartmouth, 72-61. It was also the 10th straight win for Yale over Dartmouth since that cold night in March of 2015.
“You ask yourself, if we would have won that game (in 2015) we would have won the championship, how hungry would we have been the next year? We don’t know those things,” Jones said. “We had a good nucleus coming back. It was a shame for those seniors (Javier Duren, Armani Cotton, Matt Townsend, Greg Kelley) that missed out on that opportunity. But the fact that they helped us build our program to where we are now is amazing.”
When Miye Oni declared for the draft after last season, there seemed to be holes in Yale’s armor, enough of them that the Bulldogs were picked third in the preseason Ivy poll and did not receive a single first-place vote. It’s a much different team than the one that dominated from 2014 to 2016. They no longer do much of their work on the offensive glass and live at the free throw line. But they have carved the league up just the same. If not for a tough loss at North Carolina and a big blown late lead at Penn State, Yale could be 25-4 and thinking about an at-large bid, but it will have to settle for 23-6 (with one regular season game left at Harvard).
Friday’s hero, Eric Monroe, played just five minutes in last year’s Ivy League Tournament and didn’t touch the floor at all in their subsequent NCAA Tournament loss to LSU. But the senior has had a remarkable campaign. Monroe had just one assist in 35 minutes against Dartmouth, but hit five of seven three-pointers when Dartmouth played off of him, and recorded zero turnovers, and – as has been the case in most games – Yale was +17 with him on the floor. He is shooting 43.9% from behind the arc, 32nd in Division I.
“They were going under the ballscreens. That’s a shot that I work on because teams do that to me, because sometimes I’m not looking for my shot. But it’s something I’m comfortable taking and my teammates did a good shot finding me a couple of times when I was open for catch-and-shoots.”
Monroe has complemented fellow guard and lethal shooter Azar Swain, while Jalen Gabbidon and Matthue Cotton have done the same on the wings for post players Jordan Bruner and Paul Atkinson. Like Monroe, Atkinson’s improvement with a bigger role has been remarkable, as he makes a case for Ivy League Player of the Year, even though Dartmouth held him to 14 points and five rebounds.
When Dartmouth (12-16, 5-8) stormed back from an early 16-point deficit to lead 40-38 with 15:30 left, a seemingly baffled Yale did what it has all season: Don’t panic and figure it out. Monroe hit a trio of three-pointers in the ensuing 19-4 Bulldog run, which was punctuated by a long-range Wyatt Yess triple, Yess being another player that had adapted to the role Jones has placed him in perfectly.
“We got a few stops in there that were really important, I can’t remember exactly,” Monroe said. “We always have different guys that step up and make big plays, that speaks for the veteran presence on our team, when it comes to the nitty-gritty, we have someone that steps up and makes the play every time.”
Defensively, Yale is only 299th nationally at causing turnovers, but they make almost every shot difficult and don’t give you a second bite, fourth in defensive rebounding at 78.8%. For much of the season, the Bulldogs led the Ivy in both offensive and defensive efficiency (it is currently second defensively behind Princeton). As they prepare for next week at Lavietes Pavilion, they know things will be difficult, but – even on Harvard’s home floor – they have to be considered a favorite.
Regardless of what happens next week, James Jones will complete his 21st season at Yale’s helm, all of them but the first with a top-half Ivy finish, in the NCAA or NIT for the second straight year and third time in six years. Before that, it had happened once (2002 NIT) in a half-century. That is deserving of praise no matter how you slice it.
“When I got in the league, it’s a lot different than it is right now and to be Ivy League champions again, back-to-back, second time we’ve done that in the last six years, for Yale basketball to do that, it’s a great statement for us, and a great statement of where our program is,” Jones said. “I couldn’t be prouder of my coaching staff and my team. We’ve proven we’re the best team through 13 games, and we just have to do it again next week in the tournament.”