Yale and Princeton have played over 150 times in the past 75 years, so it’s safe to say the two programs are quite familiar with one another on the hardwood. They faced each other three times last year, including the Ivy League title game. This time around, the vibes felt different from before.
The Tigers, less than a year removed from their magical Sweet 16 run last March, entered the night with a record 15-2, making them one of the top mid-majors in the sport.
The Bulldogs, on the other hand, entered the night a perfect 4-0 in Ivy League play up to this point and look just as good, if not better, than last year’s squad that won a share of the regular season title.
Something’s gotta give, right?
On Friday night in New Haven, Yale used a big second half boost to defeat Princeton 70-64 in front of a sold out crowd at John J. Lee Amphitheater to stay unbeaten in conference play.
“It’s hard to lose when you have that type of environment,” Yale head coach James Jones said.
In a game nationally televised on ESPNU, the stars for both sides shined their brightest. For the Bulldogs, center Danny Wolf scored 21 points and had 12 rebounds and a pair of monster blocks. As for the Tigers, guard Xaivian Lee scored 18 points to go along with 11 rebounds and four assists.
Wolf, a seven-footer, looked like Nikola Jokic out there the way he handled the ball and distributed it. Against the Tigers, he had a sequence where he blocked a shot off the glass on one end and finished with a one-handed flush in transition at the other end.
“Danny’s a tremendous player and he showed a little bit of everything he can do,” Jones said.
Lee has broken out as one of the more underrated stars in the country as a sophomore. From hitting one-legged, fading triples to finding his open teammates in transition, every time he touched the rock you knew a highlight play can happen.
“Xaivian Lee’s falling down with one second to go and the ball goes in,” Jones said. “Sometimes that happens to you.”
Princeton led a majority of the game, but with 11 minutes left, John Poulakidas splashed a three to give Yale its first lead of the second half at 46-44.
The two teams battled back and forth from that point, but the undersized Tigers just had no match for Wolf inside. Princeton forward Caden Pierce had 20 points, but he struggled to contain the seven-footer, who was constantly double-teamed all night.
“You can’t play him one-on-one in the post,” Jones said. “Their tallest player is 6-foot-7, so it’s hard. I expected the double team to come, and it did.”
Lee had just seven points in the second half and was locked up by Yale’s best defender Bez Mbeng. Mbeng forced Lee to take some tough shots and didn’t give him anything easy.
“I wouldn’t want to have to dribble the ball around [Mbeng],” Jones said. “That wouldn’t go well for James Jones. I’m glad he’s on our team.”
At the end of the day, Yale made enough free throws to hold off the Princeton comeback, even though they were 13-for-25 as a team from the stripe. Nonetheless, they avenged last season’s championship game loss with a massive resume-boosting win.
“We wanted to treat it like another game, of course, but definitely had some extra motivation for sure,” Mbeng said.
The Ivy League has quietly been one of the top mid-major conferences in the country. Both Yale and Princeton have significant talent and could play with any high major out there. Cornell has started league play 5-0 including a 20-point win over the Tigers. Harvard has one of the top freshmen in the country in Malik Mack.
The Ivy Tournament is set for March 16-17 in New York.