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LIer James Jones helps Yale end its 54-year NCAA drought

Yale men's basketball coach James Jones holds the

Yale men's basketball coach James Jones holds the ball in the second half of an NCAA Ivy League Conference college basketball game Saturday, March 5, 2016, in New York. Credit: AP / Bryan R. Smith

James Jones glanced at Levien Gymnasium’s scoreboard and exhaled.

The burden of guiding Yale back to the NCAA Tournament had existed longer than the coach himself, and his interpretation of that scoreboard on March 5 — Yale 64, Columbia 53. 1:30. — said the drought’s end was imminent.

“I felt like, hey, we were safe here,” said Jones, a 52-year-old Long Island native and Half Hollow Hills West alumnus.

In other years, heartbreak had struck to keep Yale’s most recent NCAA Tournament appearance in 1962. There was the tiebreaking one-game playoff loss to Penn in 2001-02, the winner earning the Ivy League’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. In 2014-15, the Bulldogs relinquished a five-point lead in the final 25 seconds and lost the regular-season finale at Dartmouth, 59-58, at the buzzer. That defeat forced a first-place tie with Harvard, which won the tiebreaker, 53-51, on a jumper in the final seconds.

“There wasn’t a way for Columbia to come back,” Jones said. “You know they can’t draw up an 11-point play.”

Jones walked down his sideline and bumped fists with each assistant, player and manager. Moments later, the final buzzer sounded on the regular-season finale and the scoreboard read: Yale 71, Columbia 55. “I’m still smiling,” said Joe Jones, James’ 50-year-old brother and Boston University’s head coach. “I just think about that and I’m still smiling, still so happy for him.”

The Bulldogs, who entered the day a game ahead of second-place Princeton, had punched their ticket to the NCAA Tournament. On Thursday, Yale, seeded 12th, earned its first win in the tourney by knocking off fifth-seeded Baylor, 79-75, in the West Regional.

James Jones’ path to this moment is defined by persistence, realism and luck.

It began at home, in North Babylon, when he battled Joe and a friend in the driveway, developing the competitive edge that has fueled him through 17 years as Yale’s head coach. It continued in 11th grade, when Jones determined his childhood dream — playing for North Carolina’s Dean Smith and then the Knicks — would be fruitless.

“Dean Smith’s not coming to see the 13th guy on a 15-man team,” he said.

Instead, Jones played Division III basketball for Albany from 1982-86. After graduating, he was working for National Cash Register when he ran into an assistant coach for Albany’s women’s basketball team. She told him the school might need an assistant and junior varsity men’s basketball coach. Jones applied and received the job for the 1990-91 season.

“The first intention,” Jones said, “was to get into coaching but go back, get my MBA and work on Wall Street after a few years, but my first team went 17-3 and I thought coaching was easy. I just got snakebit at that point, and it’s been a joy ever since.”

Jones held the Albany job until 1995 and advanced to Yale (1995-1997) and Ohio (1997-1999) before becoming Yale’s head coach as a 35-year-old in 1999.

“He’s worked his way through, and every opportunity he’s gotten he’s worked his tail off to get,” said Joe Jones, a former Hofstra assistant who claimed he has benefited as a member of Jay Wright’s coaching tree. “He’s kind of done this on his own, without much help.”

Not entirely.

Years ago as young assistants on the recruiting trail, James Jones and Gregg Marshall became friends. Marshall, 53, went on to lead Winthrop to seven NCAA tournaments in nine years and Wichita State to five straight appearances, including the 2013 Final Four.

Though Yale has finished fourth or better in the Ivy League 16 years consecutively and earned bids to the 2002 NIT and 2012 and 2014 CIT, the NCAA Tournament is a novel experience for Jones. Marshall shared advice on how to handle practices and, generally, the week leading up to Selection Sunday and then the three or four days before the Round of 64.

“All you really want to do is make sure you enjoy this because it’s so fleeting,” Jones said, summarizing Marshall’s message. “Next year will be here before you know it and it changes really quick. Enjoy it while you can because it’ll be over soon.”

And because it took a long time to get here.

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