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Yale Star Seeks NCAA Basketball Berth Before Heading Off As Rhodes Scholar

Chappaqua's Matt Townsend has combined basketball success with academic brilliance at Yale University.
Chappaqua's Matt Townsend has combined basketball success with academic brilliance at Yale University. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Yale Athletics

FAIRFIELD COUNTY Conn. -- Matt Townsend has combined a steady basketball career with a brilliant education during his four years at Yale University. Now, the senior is ready to take the next step in both.

Townsend is trying to help the Bulldogs make their first NCAA Tournament berth in 43 years. Friday’s road game at Harvard will likely determine the Ivy League champion, with Yale and Harvard are tied atop the conference with 10-2 league records. After Friday’s game, each team will have one game remaining in the regular season.

Win or lose, Townsend’s future is set when the basketball season ends. In November, he was named a Rhodes Scholar. The Chappaqua, N.Y., resident was one of 32 students selected for the program, and in October he will begin his studies in Oxford, England. Townsend is majoring in molecular, cellular and developmental biology and has a perfect academic record across the sciences, economics and Latin.

The task at hand Friday for Yale (21-8) is getting past Harvard, which beat the Bulldogs, 52-50, in New Haven on Feb. 7. Yale shot 32 percent from the floor in that contest. If Yale wins, it would need to beat Dartmouth (12-14) in its final regular season game to clinch the Ivy berth.

“It would definitely make my career,’’ Townsend said. “My freshman year we came in fourth, and then we were third and last year were second. To continue that progression and get it done this year would really be special.”

Townsend, a 6-foot-7 forward, has been a three-year starter at Yale. He is having his best season with 7.9 points and 3.6 rebounds per game. At Horace Greeley High in Chappaqua, he averaged 28.8 points and 15.9 rebounds as a senior and is the school's all-time leading scorer (1,516 points) and rebounder (1,021). Townsend has developed into a role player for the Bulldogs.

“It definitely took some time to adjust to it,’’ he said. “A lot of the success I’ve had here is doing all the little things that help us become successful. Setting a screen to get someone open to knock down a shot, or getting the assist before the assist that leads to the basket, those are valuable roles. I think it was an adjustment process but one that has been super valuable to me.”

Learning the fundamentals under longtime coach Dave Fernandes at Greeley helped him adapt to his role at Yale, Townsend said.

“I think I learned so much that I didn’t realize it until I left,’’ Townsend said. “He was great at getting us to go out and give 100 percent every game. That’s something I’ve taken to college. He taught me how to hit the mid-range jump shot, boxing out and taking care of the smaller details.”

Townsend said he was surprised he was named a Rhodes Scholar. There were 877 applicants, and the finalists were selected on academic excellence, and for their character, commitment to others and potential for leadership.

Townsend, who was valedictorian at Greeley, said he found it easier to combine academics and athletics at Yale than he anticipated.

“I was a little bit nervous that everyone would be here super geniuses,’’ he said. “I thought students would be the stereotypical mad scientist or awkward brilliant kid. There are so many remarkable and talented people, but they’re all normal and nice. I’’m blown away by the academic opportunities available with world-class teachers and all sorts of doors that have been opened for me.”

Townsend plans to attend Oxford on his path toward a medical degree. He has an interest in the socio-cultural, environmental and biological roots of obesity-related diseases. He said the long-term goal is to work in academic medicine in a university hospital setting, conduct research and have a hand in public policy with food and obesity.

“I think a big thing on the agenda is relative food pricing,’’ Townsend said. “It doesn’t make sense from a public health standpoint that soda is much cheaper than a gallon of skim milk. We need to make it easier for consumers to access nutritional information. We need to re-create labeling and information systems for people to make better food choices.”

When he’s not playing basketball or studying, Townsend serves as the co-coordinator of a Yale Hunger and Homelessness Action program that delivers bread and baked goods from dining halls to halfway houses in New Haven.

With all that he has accomplished, Townsend is a worthy Rhodes Scholar. He’s glad he took the time to pursue it.

“When I was thinking about applying the odds were so low,’’ Townsend said. “There are so many fantastic students. I decided the potential upside would be worth it, and I was fortunate to have that honor work out.”

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