BOSTON — If you didn’t notice Matthue Cotton all that much during Yale’s triumphant run through the Ivy League men’s basketball tournament, he understands.
After all, the junior guard with South Jersey roots registered just eight points and five rebounds in 17 minutes in Saturday’s semifinal win over Penn, and six points and four rebounds in 21 minutes in Sunday’s final win over Princeton — a 66-64 victory that clinched the Bulldogs’ third NCAA Tournament trip in the last six years.
Look closer, though, and things start to stand out for a player whose high school path went through Academy of the New Church in Bryn Athyn, St. Benedict’s Prep in Newark, and Eastern High in Voorhees.
First, Cotton’s minutes were the most of any Yale bench player in both games. Second, in both games, the junior guard hit some crucial shots.
» READ MORE: A look back at Matthue Cotton's time at Eastern High
Against Penn, it was a three as part of a 7-0 run early in the second half that gave the Bulldogs a nine-point lead, their biggest of the game; and a two-pointer for an eight-point advantage soon thereafter.
Against Princeton, there was another big second-half three, this one to make it 51-43 with 8:52 left after the lead was 45-43 two and a half minutes before.
Yale senior guard Azar Swain commanded the headlines with two outstanding performances, 25 points against Penn and 23 against Princeton. But Cotton knew that when the ball came to him, he had to deliver, and he cashed in.
“In those moments, you’ve got to trust your work,” Cotton told The Inquirer. “I mean, all of us, we get up so many reps, and just the trust that we all have in each other — luckily, I was able to hit a couple shots, and our team fed off that.”
Cotton is also willing to wait his turn for the spotlight. He was a sophomore in high school when Yale erupted onto the national scene by upsetting Baylor in the 2016 NCAA tournament, and was a freshman reserve with the Bulldogs when they won the 2019 Ivy tournament and lost narrowly to Louisiana State in the NCAAs.
“Coming here, just being a part of the program and being able to grow since freshman year, to see what winning looks like … and to try to make our own version of that, it feels good to just be a part of it,” he said.
Now he has another piece of a cut-down net in his collection — and one with a little extra significance. There hadn’t been an Ivy tournament since 2019, with the 2020 edition among the first sports events canceled by the pandemic after Yale won the regular-season title. Then the Ivy League didn’t play at all in the 2020-21 season, while the rest of Division I did.
But when it all goes down in the history books, Yale will be listed as having won back-to-back Ivy tournaments and a league title in between them. The Bulldogs drew the East region’s No. 14 seed in the NCAA Tournament, and will face No. 3 seed Purdue on Friday in Milwaukee.
“After COVID, to have a year off and to come back and get back to winning, it feels good,” Cotton said. “And to finally finish off the three-peat, it definitely feels amazing.”
And if pedants would pick at it being a three-peat, well, not many Ivy teams have beaten Yale in that stretch no matter where the game is. The Bulldogs have gone 36-10 in conference play over the league’s last three seasons, with two second-place finishes and one in first.
It’s a good bet that they’ll be there or close again next year, and veteran coach James Jones believes Cotton will be a major contributor.
“We’ve only seen the shadow of what he actually is,” said Jones, now in his 23rd year leading the Bulldogs, and the second-winningest coach in Ivy men’s hoops history behind Princeton’s Pete Carril.
“There’s certainly been times this year when he’s been flat-out the best player that we have on our team in practice, where he can go on a run and make, like, seven, eight threes in a row,” Jones continued. “So I’m looking forward to his progression, and what he looks like going forward.”