PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Now comes Yale vs. Duke, a March oddity that somehow doubles as a rematch.
Long ago on Thanksgiving Eve, these two round-of-32 qualifiers met at Duke’s notorious Cameron Indoor Stadium, where the visitors lost by 19 and noticed some phenomena they won’t have to combat here Saturday but might have helped toughen their hides.
Blake Reynolds, their Missourian freshman reserve, looked down the benches, saw Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski and realized he wasn’t in high school anymore. Of the noise in that rink, he said, “It’s just nonstop. I’ve never seen t hat before in my life.”
Justin Sears, one of Yale’s co-stars, got a close-up glimpse of some ancient Krzyzewskian magic after Yale took leads of 9-0 and 31-24 before the Ivy withered. “We were winning by five to nine points,” Sears said, “and I remember Coach K went over to the refs, spoke to them and the place just got louder. And then every call went against us.”
Guard Anthony Dallier can’t remember any specific chants, but he does have a keepsake. “There was one time I took the ball out right in front of their students’ section and one of our fans got a pretty good picture of them all giving me the ‘spirit fingers’ while I was taking it out,” he said. “That was a cool moment and a cool picture to see afterward.
“It’s in my phone somewhere.”
By early Thursday evening, Sears’s phone showed 288 texts.
The Yale team of Thanksgiving eve was an experienced Ivy League favorite, just 3-1 at the time, while the Yale team of Thursday was a voluminously experienced Ivy League champion at 23-6 and just plain good by any standard. It spent its alleged 79-75 upset of Baylor perhaps confusing witnesses as to which was the No. 5 seed and which the No. 12, with Makai Mason throttling and flustering the Bears with 31 points, and making 11 of 11 free throws as if Yale’s first NCAA tournament victory and first appearance since 1962 occurred in some dusky backyard.
“There’s no one in the country that can guard that guy,” Sears said.
So their language has grown large as well. They know they belong in Yale vs. Duke, an oddity though it may be.
Noted among hoop intellectuals for their rebounding, they outrebounded Baylor 36-32, which should have been unsurprising seeing as how they outrebounded Illinois 48-25 and matched Duke 37-37 at Cameron. Said reserve Khaliq Ghani, “We don’t ever go into a game thinking, ‘Aw man, this team’s better than us.’ ” Said Sears of Duke, “I think we have the stronger front court.” Said guard Nick Victor, of air-balling a free throw with six seconds left for a potential nightmare, “I just turned around and the play’s over. Play defense.”
While Baylor melted and even staged an intra-bench scuffle for the public’s intrigue, the idea of the Ivy League continued to evolve, the decade now brimming with NCAA tournament wins from Cornell (two), Harvard (two) and Yale. “When you hear Yale, Princeton, Harvard or any of those Ivy League schools, you don’t think of athletes or people that are going to punch you in the mouth and go back at you,” Sears said. So: “A lot of teams don’t take it seriously until we’re a couple of points up on them.”
They’re formidable enough that they’ve sustained their roll even after losing their captain, Jack Montague, to horrific circumstances: an expulsion Feb. 26 owing to a sexual-misconduct verdict. Montague did turn up in the seats Thursday to cheer for his former teammates, even as Sears said afterward, “I didn’t know he came, but that’s great.”
Now they might even get another chance at that puzzle of a 1-3-1 zone Krzyzewski introduced late in the first half in November, with NBA-bound freshman Brandon Ingram and his 7-foot-3 wingspan up top. What ensued was a 17-2 Duke run, 30 percent shooting from the field in the second half for Yale and a whole bunch of noise, even if Ghani found it less noisy than a trip to Iowa State three years earlier. “Took a little time figuring that out,” Dallier said of the zone, “and that’s when they were kind of able to pull away.”
There and since, though, Yale kept thickening its bond, until it has grown into one of those things you see around March — into something akin to indomitable. Said Reynolds, “This time, all those jitters are out. We’ve played in big games. We’ve been there before, so that experience [in Cameron] will really help out.” Said Ghani, “You trust everybody. When you trust somebody as a person, you’re going to trust them as a player,” especially when you’ve been to Cameron and back.