Men’s basketball still in Ivy tournament hunt after weekend sweep

by Devan Fink | 3/2/20 2:25am

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Men's basketball beat Cornell and Columbia on the road this weekend.

by Naina Bhalla / The Dartmouth Senior Staff

Heading into the final weekend of the season, Dartmouth men’s basketball (12-15, 5-7 Ivy) is miraculously still alive.

Just two weeks ago, the Big Green sat at 0-6 in conference play, seemingly without any answers to its Ivy League competition. The team cited a tough schedule — five of its first six games came on the road — as the reason for the disappointment and hoped that the softening of the calendar would help them climb their way back into the race. 

“The start was definitely brutal,” said James Foye ’20. “Starting with Harvard, both games as your travel partner, is obviously tough. Then, we had some tough ones on the road, and I think, rather than softening up — once you get that first win, it can make it easier. Because, before you get your first win, when we were 0-6, it can be pretty mentally draining, thinking about how you haven’t won a game, how you’ve lost however many in a row.”

At home against Columbia University and Cornell University on Valentine’s Day weekend, Dartmouth swept its first Ivy back-to-back in five years. The Big Green defeated the University of Pennsylvania in a commanding victory the following Friday and have since swept the two New York Ivies once again, this time on the road. The Big Green’s only blemish in its last six games came at home versus Princeton University, when the bucket to take the lead late in the game did not fall.

This weekend, with an 82-70 win at Cornell on Friday, the Big Green snapped its 20-game road conference losing streak, and sweetened the deal with an 76-57 victory over Columbia on Saturday. Coincidentally, Dartmouth’s last road back-to-back sweep came against these two schools, when the team finished its 2014-15 season with five straight victories. 

“It is probably the hardest road trip,” Foye said. “It’s a gritty, gritty weekend, and I think your mindset has to be, ‘They’re tired too.’ It’s just kind of [about] who wants it more and who can make a couple more plays. As much of a physical thing it is, it’s also really mental and getting yourself in that position.”

The math for Dartmouth to make the Ivy League Tournament and have the chance to play for the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament still remains incredibly complicated and highly unlikely. In addition to needing victories versus both Yale University and Brown University at home next weekend, Penn will need to drop both games on its weekend slate: at home versus Cornell and Columbia. Even if all of this happens, Dartmouth could still finish the year tied with Brown at 7-7. If that is the case, Harvard would need to beat Yale for the Big Green to earn the tiebreaker over the Bears.

“Penn losing both at home is probably the most unlikely, but who knows?” Foye said. “Rooting for Columbia and Cornell, weirdly enough. It’s a weird league.”

The odds of all of this happening are extremely slim. According to college basketball statistician Luke Benz, the Big Green has just a 0.3 percent chance to earn the fourth seed in the tournament. The tough losses at Brown, when Dartmouth held an eight-point lead at the half, and versus Princeton, when a furious comeback fell short despite three opportunities to take the lead, only loom larger now.

“You want those back,” said Chris Knight ’21. “Those really hurt. One, [against Brown], we were on the road. We needed to have one of those early road wins. That would have set us up really well. You can’t do anything about it now, and you just have to look forward.”

Regardless, it is rather impressive that the Big Green has hung around this long. Knight has taken his game to another level in the recent going, averaging 19.8 points, 9.0 rebounds and 2.8 assists in his last six games. His efficiency has been off-the-charts: Knight has shot 72 percent from the field during this stretch, by far the best field goal rate across any six-game timeframe over his college career.

“I’ve always told people that a lot with me is mental,” Knight said. “I’ve just been more locked in on defense, on offense, doing what I’m supposed to do. I’ve just been playing more smoothly.”

Perhaps most impressive this weekend was Knight’s performance against Columbia. Entering halftime with just three points on one field goal attempt, Knight said that the Dartmouth coaching staff challenged him to be more aggressive. He answered their call, exploding in the second with 16 points on a perfect six-for-six shooting. As part of the tale of two halves, Knight added a total of six assists, his second-highest single-game mark in his college career.

“Our offense runs through him, both at the high and low post,” Foye said. “He’s been — these past couple weeks — I think he’s been the best player on the floor in almost all of our games. In the second half [versus Columbia], he came out like a man possessed and didn’t miss a shot all night. His natural passing ability is really impressive, and it makes him a really, really fun guy to play with.”

But it wasn’t just Knight that carried Dartmouth to two key victories this weekend. As Aaryn Rai ’21 mentioned earlier last week, the Big Green needed to hit the big shots in order to secure wins on the road.

“It’s just coming in with that confidence, knowing that no matter where we are, we’re still the same team that we’ve always been,” Rai had said. “We hit shots, we get stops, and that’s what we do. Coming in with that confidence is going to help us.”

And hit shots they did. Ian Sistare ’20 dropped 25 points versus Cornell on Friday on eight-for-10 shooting, and Foye scored 29 across both games while making eight 3-pointers himself. In all, Dartmouth shot 39 percent from beyond the arc this past weekend, making 11 3-pointers on Friday and 12 on Saturday. For the Big Green, these games represented the first two instances of it making at least 10 3-pointers in conference play.

“What started off the tone was Sistare against Cornell,” Foye said. “We know how good of a shooter he is. He’s been doing it in practice, was doing it last year, and he’s been struggling a bit this year, but we’ve known that’s in him. Hitting six-of-eight just boosted us, not only for that game, but throughout the weekend.”

Dartmouth will need to continue its hot streak as it enters the final weekend of the regular season. Both games will be at home, but the competition is formidable. Top-seeded Yale comes to Hanover on Friday, and Brown visits Leede Arena on Saturday. Both teams still have much to play for — Yale has not yet clinched a regular season Ivy League championship and like Dartmouth, Brown still has a remote chance of finishing fourth. All will be figured out this weekend, but if the Big Green wants to continue to keep its hopes alive, it will need to emerge from both games victorious.