PROVIDENCE — Sports is often a binary business. You win or you lose. You score more than the other team or you don’t. You keep playing or you go home. But we all have enough gray matter to understand there is a gray area between success and failure. It was in that glorious gray space that the Yale basketball team put its stamp on the 2016 NCAA Tournament and a historic season.
The record will show Yale lost to Duke, 71-64, in the second round at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center on Saturday. But no black-and-white box score will ever be able to tell the tale of a game that was a tale of two halves and a testament to the resolve of both teams.
It wasn’t quite Harvard beats Yale, 29-29, the famous 1968 football tie, but Yale’s near comeback from a 27-point first-half deficit can’t be mundanely summed up as a mere loss. The Bulldogs didn’t win the game, but they gained universal respect and the hearts of college basketball fans hoping to witness a comeback for the ages. They created a March moment. They had the bluest of college basketball blue bloods ashen with fear.
The arena was rocking when Yale pulled within 3 points on a tip-in credited to Ivy League Player of the Year Justin Sears with 39 seconds left. But lottery pick-in-training Brandon Ingram coolly made both ends of a one-and-one. Yale’s dream faded to black. Duke’s nightmare second half had a happy ending. College basketball fans on the edge of their seats inside the Dunk or their living rooms could return to a resting heart rate.
“Well, the last thing you want to do is go out in your last game losing by 40,” said Yale coach James Jones. “No one likes the way that tastes. Now, our guys will digest this and know and think and go, ‘Gosh, if we would have played a better first half maybe we would have had a better opportunity.’ But they know in their heart that they deserved to be on the floor, and they proved it. I think that will make it a little easier to digest.”
In a tournament rife with upsets, No. 4 seed Duke thought it made sure 12th-seeded Yale put away its slingshot early.
The Blue Devils rode 60 percent shooting from 3-point range, draining eight of their first 10 treys, and a 22-point first half from Grayson Allen to a 48-25 halftime advantage.
Allen scored 10 straight points during an 18-0 Duke run that pushed the advantage to 46-19, its largest of the game.
The smarties from Yale, like Sears and guard Makai Mason, the hero of the Baylor win, would have had an easier time making anagrams with Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski’s surname than they did scoring against the Blue Devils in the first half.
This regular-season rematch looked like the mismatch it was in pedigree. The Blue Devils were seeking their 25th Sweet 16 with a berth in the West Regional semifinals and entered with 103 NCAA Tournament victories. Yale won its first-ever NCAA Tournament game on Thursday.
A lesser team would have packed it in, satisfied with its historic NCAA win and the winningest season in school history since Theodore Roosevelt was president. Not the Yalies.
“We got in the locker room, and we said, ‘We have 20 more minutes to make a statement,’ ” said Sears, who scored all 12 of his points in his final collegiate game in the second half. “So the four seniors, they led us out there, and we just gave it all our heart and effort . . . That’s all we could do, and we had a valiant comeback.”
Valiant doesn’t began to describe it. Epic does.
Trailing, 52-29, Yale used a dogged full-court press that fueled an 18-2 run to cut the Blue Devils’ lead to 7 on a dunk by Sears with 11:40 left. The slam capped a 15-0 Yale spurt. It was a dogfight the rest of the way, with depth-challenged Duke holding on for dear life.
Yale held Duke to just 6-of-22 shooting in the second half, with all those buckets coming from Ingram, who had 14 of his 25 points in the second half, and Allen (29 points). The Yalies outscored Duke, 21-2, in second-chance points in the game.
But Yale couldn’t climb all the way back for a comeback that would have lived on in March lore.
Let’s give the other guys in blue and white some credit as well.
As Wilt Chamberlain famously said, “Nobody roots for Goliath.” Duke is one of the giants of March, regarded as college basketball’s Evil Empire, thanks to the various Laettners, Hurleys, Hills, and Redicks.
However, in this era of the one-and-done, the Blue Devils are the defending national champions in name only.
The only player who took the court on Saturday for Duke who scored in the national title game victory over Wisconsin last April was Allen. Duke has been without senior starting center/power forward Amile Jefferson since Dec. 5 because of a broken right foot.
Love ’em or hate ’em, give Duke its due.
“I told them how proud I was of them because, especially in this tournament, teams lose those games,” said Coach K. “I mean, we see it. The tournament is only three days old. Are you kidding me [with the upsets]?
“It’s incredible because people always believe in miracles this time of year, and they don’t believe they’re ever out of it. What we have to do because we’re expected to win no matter who we are — age or number of players — we have to be able to respond to that. And we were able to do that at the end. I’m very proud of my team for being able to do that.”
Only one team gets to say they’re moving on to the Sweet 16. But there were no losers between Duke and Yale on Saturday.Christopher L. Gasper is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.