In a seesaw battle on Wednesday night, guard Miye Oni ’20 — the Yale men’s basketball team’s top scorer — somehow proved to be an unsung hero.
Oni was benched to start both the first and second halves at Lehigh (4–5, 0–0 Patriot), and he was unproductive for much of the first part of the game, relying on his outside shooting. But with the game knotted at 75–75 with under two minutes to play, Oni drained a corner 3-pointer for the decisive bucket, off an assist from forward Blake Reynolds ’19, to put the Elis (6–5, 0–0 Ivy) ahead for good en route to an 86–77 victory.
On Yale’s next possession, guard Alex Copeland ’19 calmly dribbled down the shot clock and then swished a contested fadeaway jumper to secure Yale’s lead. Copeland finished with a career-high 25 points on 9–13 shooting to lead the Bulldogs, who overcame a seven-point, second-half deficit after squandering a 19-point lead in the first 20 minutes. In its first win in a close game thus far, the Bulldogs’ success stemmed from their ability to play unselfishly, assisting on 21 of 30 field goals.
“We got off to a tremendous start on both sides of the ball — great energy and effort,” head coach James Jones said. “In the end, we executed on the offensive side and worked hard enough to make some key stops.”
This back-and-forth affair seemed to encapsulate Yale’s up-and-down season to date. While the Elis have dispatched the weaker teams on their schedule — all their previous wins came by double-digit margins — they dropped three blowouts to their most talented opponents, in addition to two narrow losses to NCAA Tournament contenders Albany and Vermont.
Jones has been preaching consistency for his streaky team, but on Wednesday night, he decided to shake things up.
Gone from the starting lineup were both Oni and guard Trey Phills ’19, the latter being one of Yale’s most experienced players and best defenders. Ten players saw substantial minutes in the first half, and Jones substituted players in and out with much more frequency.
And it worked — at first.
Copeland ignited Yale’s offense with a 3-pointer to start the game, and the Bulldogs hit their first five field goals. They assisted on 10 of their first 12 made shots and fluidly moved the ball inside-out and along the perimeter. For the second straight game, Copeland keyed the scoring with a hot start to the contest. He dropped 10 points in less than five minutes of action, as the Mountain Hawks struggled to contain his quickness.
Oni and Phills entered the game after the under-16 minutes media timeout. Starting forward Paul Atkinson ’21, flashing newly earned All-Ivy Rookie of the Week honors, continued to look more comfortable as Yale’s primary inside presence. All of the healthy first years on the roster played at least six minutes in the first half, and for one stretch, there were no upperclassmen on the floor.
But it didn’t seem to matter who was playing, as Yale’s swift ball movement and tight defense — and Lehigh’s frequent turnovers — combined to produce a 19-point Eli lead with eight minutes and 25 seconds to play in the first frame.
Regarding his alterations to the lineup, Jones simply said that “it was time for a change.”
Just as fast as Yale built its double-digit lead, Lehigh clawed back in the latter part of the first half. The Bulldogs strayed from their formula of ball movement, and the Lehigh defense clamped down, forcing Yale to settle for outside jump shots. Mountain Hawk guards Kyle Leufroy and Kahron Ross fueled the comeback, and the hosts finished the first half on a 30–9 run.
Inside, James Karnik ably filled the void left by Tim Kempton, the third-most prolific scorer in Lehigh history, finishing with 14 points and five rebounds. With a minute and a half remaining, Pat Andree hit a three-pointer to give the hosts their first lead of the night. Lehigh went into halftime with a 42–40 advantage.
Phills discussed the team’s challenge of playing a complete game after losing to TCU on Saturday.
“The takeaway from [the TCU game] is being able to play our brand of basketball consistently for the whole 40 minutes,” Phills said. “I felt like there were … stretches of the game where we did what we were supposed to do, and the results showed. But the problem is that we need to do that for the entirety of the game, and the times that we don’t do that is when they capitalize on our mistakes.”
The Mountain Hawks stretched their advantage to 49–42 with just under 17 minutes to play after the break. Yale edged its way closer and regained the lead on a crucial sequence when Andree fouled forward Noah Yates ’18 on a fast break. After the referees reviewed the play, they deemed Andree’s contact a flagrant foul, and Yates hit both of his free throws to put the Elis in front 51–49. The visitors retained possession, and guard Eric Monroe ’20 found Reynolds cutting to the basket on the ensuing inbounds play for an open layup and one of his team-high six assists.
This four-point possession helped spur the Bulldogs, who created some breathing room after Copeland connected on two straight three-pointers and then hit a jumper on consecutive possessions with just over eight minutes to play. Oni also went on a scoring spree and ultimately finished with 21 points, leading the team in minutes played despite sitting out to start the contest.
Ross, Karnick and Jordan Cohen kept a gritty Lehigh team in the game, however, forcing the game to come down to the final few minutes. Ross finished with 19 points and five assists, and Karnick and Cohen both notched 14 points to make up for a quiet game from the Mountain Hawks’ leading scorer, Lance Tejada.
Lehigh defeated 2017 Ivy League champion Princeton on Nov. 29, 85–76.
Steven Rome | firstname.lastname@example.org
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