In early December, Yale men’s basketball pulled off an upset so stunning that it only seemed fit for March.
The Bulldogs were on the road against defending national-champion UConn, a team that hadn’t lost to an in-state rival in its last 68 chances.
Yale had been given little chance to stick around, let alone win. But with 3.5 seconds left, the Bulldogs, down by just two points, had the ball under the Huskies’ basket.
Common sense said the ball would go to Justin Sears — Yale’s star player and top scorer. Instead, the Bulldogs called on Jack Montague, a six-foot-nothing guard who, up to that point, had zero points and was 0-for-6 from the field. But with the game on the line, Montague caught a pass deep in the left corner and launched a three that sailed through the net.
Sears hoisted his teammate into the air. UConn left the court, dejected. It was an upset destined for SportsCenter. Yale coach James Jones called it his program’s signature victory.
But when Sears was asked after the game where he ranked the win among his all-time favorites, Yale’s star said something surprising: “I won’t lie, I’m gonna say it’s the second best,” Sears told the New Haven Register. “Jack will probably say No. 1, but other guys, we’re still looking at Harvard.”
Less than a year earlier on Feb. 8, 2014 in Cambridge, Justin Sears and Yale beat Harvard, 74-67. The win pulled the Bulldogs even with the heavily favored Crimson at 5-1 in Ivy League play.
And for nearly two more weeks, Yale kept pace with its rival atop the conference standings.
But then the Bulldogs dropped a game at Columbia — and then a game at Princeton. Harvard, meanwhile, kept winning. The Crimson finished out Ivy play on an 8-0 run to earn the team’s fourth straight Ivy title and third consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament.
Harvard’s success under head coach Tommy Amaker — who has transformed the program from an Ivy League afterthought to perennial champion — has been well documented, earning recognition in media outlets ranging from The New York Times to Sports Illustrated.
That attention ballooned last March when the Crimson beat fifth-seeded Cincinnati in the tournament’s second round and, with a trip to the Sweet Sixteen on the line, took fourth-seeded Michigan State to the wire.
It all culminated this past fall when the Associated Press in its preseason poll slotted Harvard at No. 25, and ESPN ranked two Harvard players on its list of college basketball’s top 100 players. No other Ivy League team received a vote in the AP poll nor had a player cracking ESPN’s list.
In fact, to most of the college basketball world, the Ivy League starts and ends with Harvard.
“It can get a little bit annoying at times,” Sears admits. “Whenever you tell someone you play at Yale, they’re like, ‘Oh, what league is that?’ You’ll say the Ivy League, and they’re like, ‘Oh, so you play Harvard?’”
But while Harvard has been soaking in the spotlight, Yale — a program that hasn’t won an outright league title since 1962 — has been quietly building itself into one of the Ivy League’s toughest and most consistent teams. Two years ago the Bulldogs finished in third place. Last season they took second. This year, Yale might finally slug its way to the top. And on Saturday night, with Harvard (13-5, 3-1 Ivy) coming to New Haven, the Bulldogs (15-6, 4-0 Ivy) have a chance to show everyone.
When Javier Duren committed to Yale in the summer of 2010, the rising high school senior had no idea what he was getting himself into. Once he arrived in New Haven in the fall of 2011, he learned fast.
“Umm, I’d say the first of practice,” says Duren, now a senior and Yale’s No. 2 scorer.
All teams stress the importance of practice, but the Bulldogs seem to take that to another level. A regular feature is something called “The War Drill.”
“A lot of the drills,” Sears explains, “have similar names or vibes.”
When basketball coaches or analysts describe a tough, physical player, they’ll sometimes joke, “He brings his hard hat to work.” But many Yale players literally wear helmets to practice.
“I think everyone on the team outside of the freshmen,” Duren explains, “has had a concussion.”
“Yeah, if not multiple concussions,” Sears adds, “whether it be from elbows, falling on their head –”
“I got kicked in the head once,” Duren chimes in.
“It’s physical,” Sears says. “We know what to expect when we get into practice.”
And what they can expect, more than anything else, is rebounding.
“Rebounding’s a great stat in terms of wins and losses,” Yale coach James Jones says.
Jones is in his 16th year coaching at Yale, but, back when he was a player, hitting the glass was something that always came naturally. Now he makes sure it’s something his players constantly practice.
“One of the hardest drills that we do is probably our rebounding drill,” Duren says, then clarifies: “We have multiple rebounding drills.”
“They’re all about rebounding,” Sears says.
Not surprisingly, there are times when Sears peaks at the practice schedule and isn’t exactly jumping for joy.
“It can be tough sometimes,” he admits.
But there’s something that keeps the players committed.
“We’ve seen tangibly,” Duren says, “how us working on drills like that in practice translates into games.”
Last Friday, Yale visited Columbia, another of the Ivy League’s up-and-coming teams.
Early in the second period, the Bulldogs pushed their three-point halftime lead to seven. But with just under 14 minutes to go, Columbia guard Maodo Lo — the Ivy League’s No. 2 scorer and three-point shooter — started to get hot.
First he nailed a pull-up jumper from just inside the three-point line. Then on the Lions’ next trip down the floor, Lo got open on an off-ball screen and nailed a triple. Three-point game.
Yale guard Makai Mason tried to answer with a layup, but his shot bounced off the back of the rim. Sears, stationed just in front of the free throw line, cut to the basket as the shot went up.
A Columbia guard tried to box him out, but Sears rose up and tipped in the missed shot. Five-point game.
Lo wasn’t done. This time, the junior nailed a step-back three in his defender’s face. Yale’s lead was down to two. Again, Sears answered, this time scoring a layup from the right block.
Finally Columbia missed. But the threat wasn’t quite over. The shot took a hard bounce off the rim and seemed headed straight for the hands of Lo, who was positioned wide-open under the hoop. But Mason — Yale’s 6-foot-1, freshman guard — tracked the shot from his spot on the opposite elbow and took off for the rebound. He collided with Lo in midair and, for a moment, both players had their hands wrapped around the ball. When they came down, Lo went sprawling to the floor, and Mason had the rebound. Before Lo could get up, Mason pushed the ball ahead, and Yale made two quick passes to find Sears for a wide-open dunk.
Yale’s lead was back up to six with 11:16 to go. The Bulldogs led the rest of the way.
That — capitalizing on offensive rebounds, collectively hitting the glass — is how Yale wins games.
The Bulldogs’ rebounding margin — +6.6 — is tops in the league and it’s not even close. No. 2 Columbia (+3.4) is closer to No. 6 Dartmouth (+1.3) than it is to the Bulldogs.
“They’re so big, and they’re physical,” Albany coach Will Brown said after the teams played in December. “They’re excellent on the glass. Yale is a team that you have to go out and beat. They’re not going to beat themselves.”
That Yale has reached this point is not simply the result of a few rebounding drills. Rather it’s the realization of a decade-long plan hatched by Jones, the Ivy League’s longest-tenured coach.
For the past 10-plus years, Jones has been traveling from high school gyms to AAU tournaments, scouting potential Bulldogs’ recruits for one thing:
“The first thing you look for is toughness,” he says. “If I have to try to teach you to dive on the ground for a loose ball — I don’t know that that’s gonna’ be possible to teach you how to have those instincts. You either have those instincts or you don’t.”
In some cases, that means passing on talented or athletic prospects who don’t fit the mold.
The patience is now paying off. For each of the last three seasons, Yale has led the conference in rebounding margin.
So far it hasn’t translated into an Ivy League championship. But this year could be different. Why? Because the 2014-15 Bulldogs are doing more than just hitting the boards.
Montague is shooting a league-best 44.6 percent from deep. Duren is posting 4.1 assists per game, good for third in the conference.
And, of course, there’s Sears, the 6-foot-8, do-everything forward, who last season was a near-unanimous First Team All Ivy selection. And this year — at 14.7 points, 7.5 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game — the junior is making a push for Ivy League Player of the Year.
Before that’s settled, though, there’s Saturday night, the first of two meetings between the Ivy’s top two teams.
Harvard and Yale have met before for big games — but never quite like this: with the Crimson down a game in the loss column, Yale has a chance to grab an early-but-commanding lead over the team that has rarely budged from its position atop the conference.
A Bulldogs win might come as a surprise to the national media. But for Sears and his teammates, it’s been a long-time coming.
“This season we’re still kinda flying under the radar,” he says. “It’s a good position to be in just because it’ll look like we just snuck up on them out of nowhere. But we’ve been building toward this for a while.”
And maybe after Saturday’s game, Sears will finally have a new favorite victory.