As the cheers in Payne Whitney Gymnasium rose to a deafening roar, and the game slipped away, the Crimson could do nothing but watch their hopes of reaching the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2015 evaporate into a cloud of could-have beens.
For the second straight year, Harvard was the regular season champion and number one seed of the Ivy League forced to play on the road, falling to Yale by a 97-85 score, the hosts of this year’s tournament. A year after losing to second-seeded Penn in Philadelphia in the finals, Sunday’s championship game offered an opportunity to exorcise last season’s demons, but the Crimson were unable to overcome the Bulldogs’ offensive juggernaut and raucous home court environment.
“Certainly [Yale] played at a much higher level here this afternoon, they are very deserving of the victory and to representing our conference in the NCAA Tournament,” Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said. “I thought we played exceptionally well in spurts. In order to win a game like this, we need forty minutes of outstanding basketball. We didn’t have that today.”
Even 38 points from junior guard Bryce Aiken wasn’t enough to keep Harvard in the game, as Yale came with wave after wave of offense. The Randolph, N.J., native finished 11-of-21 from the field, and was the most lethal player on the court, but was unable to rally his team to victory in a hostile road environment.
After a slam-dunk from freshman guard Noah Kirkwood gave the Crimson a 52-45 lead and breathing room, the Bulldogs responded with an extended 28-7 run to give them firm control over the came.
“We didn’t defend well, that was ultimately what it came down to,” Aiken said. “We let them get a lot of easy shots, and allowed them to go on a run and they capitalized on it.”
The big run was just another part of the deja vu that plagued Harvard in the championship. A year after the Quakers rattled off a similar stretch during last season’s finals, Yale did their most impressive work without the Ivy League player of the year.
With Miye Oni picking up his fourth foul of the game with just over 14 minutes in the game, he was forced to go to the bench. With the Crimson leading 54-53 at that point, everything seemed in place for the five-point underdogs to pull off the road upset and punch their ticket to the Big Dance.
“My initial reaction [to the Oni foul] was bad call,” said Yale senior guard Alex Copeland, “My second reaction was I looked at the clock and I looked at the rest of the guys on the court, I said, we need to do it without him and we need to hold it down until he could get back into the game. We played so hard. ”
Instead, the Bulldogs rode an impressive showing from Copeland, and clutch play off the bench from sophomore guard Azar Swain, to sweep away the top-seeded Harvard bunch. Copeland poured in bucket after bucket, as Amaker desperately tried to contain the savvy veteran with a mixture of Kale Catchings, Justin Bassey, and Rio Haskett, but was ultimately unable to.
The Los Angeles, Calif., native led Yale with 25 points, on an ultra-efficient 9-of-14 from the field, tacking on seven free throws and a game-high seven assists. Even with Oni anchored to the bench, Copeland was able to facilitate offense through Swain, and senior Blake Reynolds, who finished with 15 and 14 points respectively.
“A couple of times I tried to slow [Copeland] down, much to no avail,” Yale Coach James Jones said. “He just drove right past me and right pass anyone in front of him to get to his spot and pull up [for] a jump shot, and he gets people so off-balance. And with that he attracts so much attention, so he’s able to find guys and make them better.”
Ultimately, the Bulldogs’ shooting in their home gym proved simply too much to overcome. Yale finished the game shooting at over a 60 percent clip, and knocked down 22-of-24 free throws, good enough for 92 percent. The Bulldogs took care of the ball as well, commiting just seven turnovers, ensuring that Harvard couldn’t climb back into the game.
Although Aiken’s heroics were the brightest spot of the Crimson’s afternoon, Kirkwood also played terrifically in the biggest game of his young career. The Ottawa, Ontario., native drilled several triples to keep Harvard in the game as Yale started to pull away.
The Ivy League Rookie of the year knocked down 3-of-5 from beyond the arc, finishing with 19 points, as the only player other than Aiken to record double figures. The Bulldogs struggled to contain Kirkwood’s explosive scoring, frequently throwing double teams at the freshman and Aiken.
For a second straight season, the Crimson must accept the harsh realities of how difficult it is to win on the road in the Ivy League. Harvard was tasked with beating co-champions Yale for a third team this season, and a second time at Payne Whitney Gymnasium, but were unable to finish the job.
Ultimately, the Crimson must accept its automatic bid to the NIT as a small consolation prize, with the knowledge that the 2020 Ivy League Tournament will be played at Lavietes Pavilion in Cambridge. On a Sunday afternoon filled with hope of a trip to March Madness, the most exciting stage in college basketball, the pain of last season has once again resurfaced.
Despite these small silver linings, when the final horn expired at Payne Whitney, Aiken and Harvard were left with nothing but frustration at coming up painfully short, for a second straight year.