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Yale 62

Yale Basketball’s High-Drama Ivy Title March Madness Run
by Lee Bolman, Sportswriter Emeritus, Yale Daily News

Yale v Auburn

Bulldogs v. Auburn. Courtesy Yale Daily News, Ben Raab, Contributing Photographer

Yale’s men’s basketball team had a magical end-of-season run, winning two hard-fought, come-from-behind games to scoop up both the Ivy League title and a stunning first-round March Madness victory. In the Ivy title game, the Elis trailed Brown by 6 points with less than half a minute to play, but outscored the Bruins by 8-1 the rest of the way. Down by 2 points with seconds to go, junior guard Bez Mbeng dribbled toward the basket to draw Brown defenders, then dropped a perfect bounce pass to wide-open senior forward Matt Knowling, who calmly sank a jump shot at the buzzer to win the game, 62-61.

The Ivy Title win earned the Elis a trip to the NCAA tournament for the fourth time under coach James Jones. Seeded 13, the Bulldogs faced a heavily favored fourth-seed Auburn in the first round. Auburn had romped through the SEC tournament and was viewed by some experts as a serious candidate for the NCAA championship. Yale fell behind for most of the game, and trailed by 10 points with 7 minutes to play before going on a 20-8 run to eke out a victory. With 6 seconds to play and Yale up 2 at 78-76, Auburn’s Tre Donaldson missed two free throws. The second miss led to a wild scramble for the ball, and Yale first-year big man Sam Aletan blocked an Auburn shot near the rim that could have tied the game. Aletan swatted the ball beyond the arc, and a last desperate Auburn heave fell short as time ran out.

Junior forward John Poulakidas led Yale scoring with a career-high 28. His three-pointer with two minutes to go gave Yale a lead they never relinquished. After the game Coach Jones commented that he didn’t know if it was the best win in Yale basketball history, but added, “I will tell you that’s the best basketball team that we’ve beaten in Yale basketball history.”

Yale’s magical run came to an abrupt halt two nights later against fifth-seed San Diego State. The Aztecs came into the game with a reputation for powerful defense and hot-and-cold offense. Against Yale, they were hot, scoring a season-high 13 3-pointers and racing to a 10-0 lead in the opening minutes. Yale’s offense moved the ball well and got open looks, but the shots weren’t dropping. San Diego held a 24-point lead at the half, and the Elis had run out of late game miracles. The final score was 85-57 San Diego.


The University of Idaho band, donning Yale Bulldogs shirts, performs Friday at the Arena in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. The band replaced Yale’s band, which couldn’t make the trip to Spokane. (Courtesy of University of Idaho)

A March Madness sidelight that generated national media attention was Yale’s substitute band. The Yale band couldn’t make the trip to Spokane (the improbable site of an Eastern regional) because students were on spring break. Yale reached out to the University of Idaho’s Marching Vandals band, which happily hopped on a bus to Spokane for a chance to play at the tournament. The Idaho band reported that Down the Field was too difficult to master on short notice, but Bulldog was doable. The Vandals’ appearance may signal a new Yale tradition. In 2019, when the Elis played a first-round NCAA game in Florida, the University of North Florida Osprey band happily donned Yale t-shirts and took a stab at Yale fight songs. Members of both bands loved the t-shirts, free pizza and the opportunity to be Yalies for a day.

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