#3 Yale 73, #2 Harvard 71: Bulldogs Win Youth Battle

Let’s start with that Miye Oni dunk. If you’re reading this, you’ve almost surely seen it already, but you’ll click below to watch it again, because it was that good. Giving credit for the circumstances — 1:30 left in a one-possession game, national TV on Championship Week, and a chance to play for an NCAA tournament bid on the line — I’d wager that it was the biggest dunk in Ivy League history.

This isn’t new for Oni. He posterized Dartmouth, alley-ooped against Lehigh, and dunked on Brown. That wasn’t all he did on Saturday — he scored a team-high 18 points from all over the court, with two assists and six rebounds — but that slam, which made the difference in a 73-71 victory, will be remembered most.

“We had shooters on the left side, so I rejected the screen, and I knew they wouldn’t help off our shooters,” Oni said.

Now let’s talk about Bryce Aiken. The modern Ivy just isn’t a hero-ball league. It’s telling that the players who score the most points — Maodo Lo in 2015, Matt Morgan last season, Evan Boudreaux this year — usually do so for bottom-tier teams: They only shoot that much if they have a weak supporting cast.

So among playoff-caliber squads, we don’t see stat lines like Aiken’s very often: 29 minutes, 25 shots, 28 points. After entering the game with ten minutes left and Harvard down eight, Aiken took four of the Crimson’s next five shots, making all of them. He took a quick breather on the bench, in which Harvard didn’t score, then returned and immediately hit a step-back three from NBA range to tie the game at 60-60.

“He’s a creative shotmaker and playmaker, and we needed him to do exactly that,” Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said. “I thought he did a tremendous job of putting us in the position to have an opportunity to pull it out. We wouldn’t have even been close if he wasn’t able to hit shots and make big plays for our team.”

After Oni’s dunk-and-one, Aiken cut the deficit to two with a contested trey. And in the final 30 seconds, with the Crimson’s season on the line, of course Aiken had the ball, beating Oni off the dribble and getting into the lane. But even with 28 points to his name, Aiken’s “rookie mistake” wasn’t trying too hard to force a game-tying shot — it was trying to set up a teammate for the big basket, just as he’d done at Houston and Cornell. This time, he tried too hard, and his pass to Zena Edosomwan was poked away.

Finally, let’s talk about Jordan Bruner. Though he came in with major hype, a minor injury sidelined Bruner for the first couple weeks, and he stayed in a bench role for the rest of the season. But he was Yale’s go-to player down the stretch on Saturday, scoring six straight points on rebounds and post-ups. Bruner’s athleticism is undeniable — just watch any of his eight rebounds — but he had one of his best performances (11 points, eight rebounds, two assists, two steals) in the biggest moment. “That’s probably the best Jordan has scored at the basket,” Jones said.

You might have noticed the common theme: Oni, Aiken and Bruner are all freshmen. We haven’t even gotten to Chris Lewis (13-8-2-2 in 17 minutes) or Seth Towns (10 points on 16 shots in an off night). You’ll be seeing these names in Ivy League Tournaments to come.

“It says a lot about the league in general. Our senior players have embraced our young guys, and allowed them to be who they are,” Amaker said. “You’re seeing a lot of young players in our conference who will play a lot of good basketball as the years go on. I’m very hopeful that we’ll get better, and I think you’ll see progression of our conference as a whole.”

That’s little consolation to Harvard, of course — especially to Zena Edosomwan and Siyani Chambers, who won’t be around for any more playoff runs. Harvard’s season slipped away in particularly cruel fashion: After Aiken’s heroics, Yale went to a 1-3-1 zone down the stretch for a different look. Harvard’s four best shooters each got a wide-open three in that span, but all four missed, including two that rattled into the rim and out.

Harvard shot 9-for-36 from distance for the game. Like Princeton, it never led in regulation, but the Crimson couldn’t pull out any late-game magic.

“We certainly felt that we had a lot of open looks,” Amaker said. “A lot of the good shooters on our team – Towns, Corey Johnson – these are guys who, more than ever, we need them to make shots for us, and today was one of those days where they weren’t able to do it.”

That’s not to say Yale didn’t force Harvard’s hands. The Bulldogs didn’t shoot any better (3-14 from three, 14-25 from the foul line), but they made good passes to out-rotate Harvard’s defense. They also made tough shots inside — especially Sam Downey, who had 13 points and 10 rebounds — en route to 1.06 points per possession.

Downey is one of the few impact players who was around for the last Harvard-Yale postseason game, a Crimson win in the 2015 playoff. The elder Bulldogs now have their revenge — and a chance to return to the NCAA tournament.

“For motivation, I watched the two games that we lost two years ago, including the one to Harvard in this building,” Jones said. “Just to take a look and get that pang again in my stomach, and maybe make me coach a little harder. It was a great college basketball game, and we were very fortunate to win.”