An electric crowd of 2,003 fans packed into the Pizzitola Sports Center on Saturday night to see the men’s basketball team face off against the Yale Bulldogs in the program’s most anticipated game in years.
The stakes were simple: with a win, the Bears could secure the fourth and final spot in the Ivy League playoffs. But lose and the season ends. While the outcome was up in the air, the regular season finale was guaranteed to be the final home game for captains Paxson Wojcik ’23 and Perry Cowan ’23, who were honored on the court with their families in a senior night ceremony prior to tipoff.
Despite a hard-fought effort, the Bears ultimately came up short 84-75, keeping them from their first Ivy Madness appearance in the tournament’s six-year history.
“We (expected) a different result, but it doesn’t take away from our growth and how much we improved since the beginning of the season,” said Head Coach Mike Martin ’04 in a press conference following the game.
“You can’t control what happens to you, but you can control how you respond to it, and I thought our guys did a good job all year blow-after-blow responding to what came at us,” he added. “There’s a whole lot of positives that we can take from this season (and) from tonight’s game.”
The Bears started the game with Wojcik, Cowan, Dan Friday ’24, Kino Lilly Jr. ’25 and Nana Owusu-Anane ’25.
The Bulldogs wasted no time putting the Bears under pressure, beginning the game with a 10-2 run. Bruno attempted to keep pace, pushing the game within three on three-pointers from Wojcik and Lilly Jr. But Yale continued to dominate, expanding their lead to 23-9 with 8:39 left in the period.
Just when the game appeared to be slipping away, the Bears exploded for a 10-0 run to bring the game back within four points. A locked-in Wojcik scored five of the 10 points and had a steal leading to a Lilly Jr. 3-pointer.
Yale responded with two buckets to re-extend their lead, but Brown’s momentum was reignited with a fiery 12-0 run. In the span of just over six minutes, the Bears had come back from down 23-9 to pull ahead 31-28.
The run sent the crowd into an absolute frenzy. The home sell-out crowd was the first since 2012, according to an announcement made at the game. Between baskets, players ran to celebrate in front of the bleachers packed with fans wearing white t-shirts as part of a coordinated “white out” effort.
The Pizzitola Sports Center reached peak volume when Bruno took the lead during the Bears’ most electric sequence of the game. After stealing the ball near the Bulldogs’ basket, Wojcik slung a pass to Friday, who quickly relayed it to Aaron Cooley ’25. Cooley drove down the court, ran towards the basket and dunked over the head of a Yale defender as cheers exploded from around the arena.
Cooley also drew a foul on the dunk and scored his free throw to give Brown a three-point lead with 2:34 remaining in the first half. Friday scored two more free throws to give Brown a 33-29 lead, but the Bulldogs managed to retake a thin 34-33 advantage going into halftime.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Bears forced many turnovers that allowed them to recover from the early gap. “We had turned them over nine times in the first half,” Martin said. “I thought our ball pressure impacted them after that 23-9 start.”
But the Bears were not immune to turnovers themselves, allowing 18 points off them in the first half.
A bright spot for the Bears was their 100% free throw shooting percentage in the half, which had proved an issue for the team earlier in the season. The Bears at one point ranked the second-worst in free throw percentage out of all Division I programs.
The two teams stayed close throughout the beginning of the second half. Brown managed to take a 43-40 lead off a shot by Wojick from behind the arc, but Yale soon pulled ahead with an 8-0 run. Brown would not lead again for the remainder of the game.
“Yale played well. They were tough, they were physical,” Martin said. “I have a lot of respect for that program.” With their win, Yale secured the first seed in the Ivy League playoffs next weekend.
Multiple controversial calls from referees throughout the game drew the ire of Brown’s crowd. One particularly critical moment came when Friday — who had already scored a season-high 16 points — was called for two questionable fouls within a span of 16 seconds. It was his fourth and fifth of the game, meaning he had fouled out.
The final dagger for the Bears seemed to come after a foul was called on Wojcik late in a Yale possession with 1:14 left in the game. The call sent the Bulldogs to the line for two free throws right as it appeared the Bears had managed a critical stop. Both shots were made.
Down 71-65 with just over a minute remaining, the Bears’ fouls became intentional in a last-ditch attempt for a comeback.
With 22 seconds left on the clock, Wojcik committed his fifth foul of the night. The team’s leading scorer, who had scored a season-high 25 points along with eight rebounds, four assists and three steals, walked off the court to a long standing ovation from the crowd. As he hugged his coaches, his teammates and finally took a seat on the sidelines, the tears began to flow.
“It’s always tough to come off the floor for the last time,” Wojcik said. “I’m gonna miss playing for those guys and playing alongside my teammates.”
Wojcik, who transferred from Loyola University Chicago before his junior year, reflected that his two years in a Bears uniform “have been wonderful.”
“I’ve enjoyed every second of it. There’s no group I’d rather go out with. I love these guys, I love this staff,” he said.
Having now missed the playoffs as a result of tiebreakers three of the past four seasons, the team will look to finally get over the hump next year and continue playing ball past the regular season.
“We have to get better,” Martin said. “We’re gonna lose two fantastic seniors, but we should feel good about the direction and where we’re at despite coming up short.”
Dennis Carey is a sports senior staff writer for The Brown Daily Herald. He previously contributed to the Arts and Culture section. In his spare time, he enjoys watching Atlanta sports and collecting vinyl records.