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Yale Defeats Harvard to Take 1-Game Lead into Saturday's Final Contest

Yale earned the advantage in the race for the Ivy League title with a win over Harvard on the road. But can the Bulldogs close it out Saturday against Dartmouth for a chance to dance for the first time since 1962?

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

There was a one moment that summed up what Friday's Harvard vs. Yale matchup meant for the winners. It came late in the second half, as Harvard kept missing and Yale kept finding ways to regain possession and get fouled to extend what became a tenuous lead.

Bulldogs coach James Jones stood on the sidelines and stared into space. You could see the wheels turning in his head as he tried to think of what to say to his team.

Yale hasn't been to the NCAA Tournament since 1962. If they win Saturday, they will break a drought that has last more than 50 years. But they need to finish this and win Saturday.

So what do you say to a team that has just beaten its biggest rival, the one with the biggest bullseye on its back for every team in the conference? How do you let them celebrate without letting them get so distracted that they can't finish the job against Dartmouth, a team they beat by 15 point in the first meeting.

None of those points carry over though.

Yale used some stellar defense and an impressive rebounding performance to take a slim one-game lead in the winner-take-all Ivy League, 62-52, over Harvard.

In the process, they knocked the Crimson a game back in the standings and put them on a direct course for a tournament that goes by three letters instead of four. This was a Harvard team that was supposed to dominate this league, after dominating in the nonconference schedule.

Neither of those things have been true

The Crimson failed against all of their high-profile opponents, ruining any chance for a two-bid Ivy League. They dropped a game against Boston College, of all teams, a team that scraped together just a 3-14 record in the ACC.

And this Harvard team lost to Darmouth, and Cornell, and now this Yale team, one that was expected to maybe be that darkhorse in the Ivy League. But while everyone wanted Justin Sears and his teammates to challenge for the title, it was still expected to belong to Harvard.

Theirs to lose, which it all but looks like they did Friday night.

Harvard didn't go down without a fight. They didn't give up when Yale led by 10 and everyone turned their attention away as upset seemed to be on the verge in other parts of the country.

This Harvard team battled back on the shoulders of Steve Moundou-Missi, who scored 21 points on 9 of 18 shooting, and added 10 rebounds for the Crimson. When they needed the big shot he was there. When they needed the rebound, he was there.

If there was a player of the game award, he would have won it in the loss -- that was how well he played in this matchup.

It was the rest of the Crimson that couldn't find their shots against a Yale defense that clogged the middle and left them settling for shots that, as Harvard men, they knew they shouldn't be taking. Wesley Saunders went just 4-for-10 from the field; Siyani Chambers left the floor just 1-for-8, and most of those misses came from 3-point range.

Without all three pistons firing for Harvard, it was going to be too much to overcome Yale and its "anybody can shoot" offense.

Javier Duren happened to be the guy who got the glory Friday, scoring 22 points, and nailing all of his free throws down the stretch as Harvard tried to lengthen the game.

The Bulldogs did all this despite 14 turnovers, a stat that has been an Achilles Heel for them all season. They committed 10 of those during the first half, which led to seven points for Harvard, and allowed them to hand around as well as they did. Without that 7-0 discrepancy in that half, Yale would have been celebrating with 10 minutes to go instead of just one.

If Yale can close this out remains to be seen. Just winning against Harvard on the road, a place where the Bulldogs have gone 11-5 this year with a win over Connecticut, was a big victory. They will need to add a 12th win against Dartmouth to close it out, and the Ivy League can be a tricky place.

Still Yale accomplished a great deal Friday night, reminding a stacked Harvard team that all the recruiting in the world doesn't just give you a championship. It has to be earned.

The Bulldogs earned at least a share of one, a share they can complete Saturday, along with something worth a lot more to these kids: a chance to dance.