MEN’S BASKETBALL: Off to the Big Dance: No. 2 Yale advances to March Madness after defeating No. 1 Princeton, 66–64
Yale guard Azar Swain ’22 scored 23 points as the Bulldogs, who led for almost the entire game, survived a late flurry of Princeton three-pointers to secure a bid to the NCAA Tournament.
All photos by Tim Tai, Staff Photographer
BOSTON — The Yale men’s basketball team is going dancing.
With a 66–64 win over first-seeded Princeton (23–6, 12–2) Sunday afternoon in the Ivy Madness final, second-seeded Yale (19–11, 11–3) claimed the Ivy League Tournament championship and punched its ticket to March Madness.
Yale has now won two consecutive Ivy Madness tournaments. The Bulldogs will compete in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2019, which is the last time an Ivy League team appeared in the bracket after the conference took a yearlong hiatus from competitive athletics during the pandemic in 2020–21.
Yale guard Azar Swain ’22 scored a game-high 23 points as the Bulldog defense held Princeton’s strong three-point shooters in check for most of the game. Swain, who took a leave of absence last year to preserve his final season of Ivy League eligibility, was named the Most Outstanding Player of Ivy Madness.
“Man, this is what I came back for,” Swain said amid a celebratory scene on the court after the game. “Like I said, I had incredibly high expectations for this group and myself, but this is the ultimate goal. To see so many young guys on the team happy after so much work and sacrifice this year. And they trusted me. They trusted me to carry this thing home and that’s what I tried to do.”
The Bulldogs led for nearly the whole game — 36 and a half of the game’s 40 minutes — and were ahead by nine, 64–55, with 59 seconds to play. Three Princeton triples in the final minute — the first from guard Ethan Wright and the next two from guard Jaelin Llewellyn — and consecutive missed free throws for Yale suddenly gave the Tigers the ball down 66–64 with 14 seconds to play. The final-minute scare soon gave way to an extended on-court celebration, as Llewellyn turned it over in the final seconds and the Bulldogs, after taking two timeouts to solidify a plan, successfully inbounded the ball as time expired.
Players surged from the Yale bench to the center of the court, where rainbow-colored confetti rained down from the rafters at Harvard’s Lavietes Pavilion. They jumped around and danced and hugged each other, greeting family and friends who filtered down from the stands to join the celebration, until the Ivy League’s golden basketball trophy appeared on the court.
The Yale team donned gray championship t-shirts, took group photos, snapped individual shots with the trophy — anything to capture the moment. Then, one by one, players and coaches stepped up a ladder set up under the hoop to snip small pieces from the net. University President Peter Salovey, Dean of Yale College Marvin Chun and Director of Athletics Vicky Chun cut their own pieces of nylon as well. Yale head coach James Jones went last, taking what remained of the white net, turning back to the players cheering beneath him and pumping his fist in celebration.
“I’m a very lucky man,” Jones said once Yale’s postgame press conference began, almost 40 minutes after the final buzzer had sounded. Muffled drumming from the Yale Precision Marching Band could still be heard in the background. “I get to go to work and be around the young men that you saw up here.”
Jones, who became the head coach in 1999 and has now brought Yale to the NCAA Tournament in three of the team’s last five opportunities — 2016, 2019 and now 2022 — said this year’s team was not the most talented he has coached at Yale. Entering the Ivy League slate with a losing record, the Elis won nine of their first 10 conference games before finishing second in league play behind the Tigers. They put together two of their best performances of the year in Boston this weekend.
Players did not seem to want to part with the trophy, which traveled from the court up to the press conference room where Jones, Swain, captain Jalen Gabbidon ’22 and first-year point guard Bez Mbeng ’25 talked to reporters.
“Where’s this going?” Mbeng said of the trophy as he walked out of the room to let Jones finish speaking.
Once his postgame media responsibilities were complete, Jones eventually returned to the court, removed his blazer and cradled the hardware as he walked into the Yale locker room.
Mbeng, who played two of his best games against the Tigers during the regular season, started strong Sunday and put forth a career performance with 13 points, 11 rebounds and three steals. His early three-pointer at the top of the key pushed the Elis forward 7–4, and they led 11–6 after Mbeng stripped the ball from Princeton guard Jaelin Llewellyn in the backcourt and raced down the court for a fast-break layup.
A pandemic-era recruit, the rookie guard had not even met Jones in person when he showed up on campus last fall. He committed to Yale relatively late — in January 2021, the middle of his senior year — and played 32 minutes in the Bulldogs’ Ivy Madness championship barely 14 months later.
“That was the goal,” Mbeng said. “I didn’t know if it was going to happen. It’s crazy,” he added before starting to laugh. “It’s crazy.”
Yale’s team defense backed up the double-figure scoring days from Swain, Mbeng and Yale forward Matt Knowling ’24, who scored 12 points and dished out five assists while shooting four of six from the field. Knowling was named to the all-tournament team along with Swain.
Princeton, the league’s top three-point shooting squad, missed its first four attempts from deep on Sunday afternoon. The Tigers shot 33 percent, six percent below their season average, from deep and 41 percent from the field on Sunday. A triple from Tigers guard Matt Allocco finally fell about seven minutes into the game. Yale led 16–10 at the under-twelve media timeout.
Defense was Yale’s defining characteristic, especially in the first half, as the Bulldogs backed up the defensive analytics that gave them the league’s strongest heading into Ivy Madness. After the first 12 minutes, Princeton was six-of-19 from the field and had made just one of its eight three-point attempts. Forward Isaiah Kelly ’23 delivered two emphatic blocks and forward EJ Jarvis ’23 swatted Llewellyn later in the first half to add some oomph to the statistics.
“Defensively we were really good and that made all the difference in the world to us,” Jones said.
Princeton fans outnumbered the Yale supporters in attendance, though fans were vocal from the opening minutes. Yale fans sitting in section one behind the Bulldogs’ bench joined players in cheering “de-fense, de-fense” when Princeton had the ball. Yale crashed the defensive glass hard and outrebounded the Tigers 38–29. In addition to Mbeng’s 11, Swain finished with six, while Gabbidon had five.
With less than 10 seconds left in the first half, the Yale captain sank a baseline jumper off an inbounds play with time expiring. Referees reviewed the shot — their second official review of the half — and the basket stood, putting Yale up 32–25 at the break.
Swain, Yale’s go-to scorer the entire season, delivered another 20-point game in the championship on Sunday, his 15th of the year. 15 of his 23 points came in the second half.
“It’s hard to put into words,” Swain said. “I’m just so grateful to give back to Yale. Yale and coach Jones changed my life. It’s just an amazing moment to be able to give that back a little bit and do my part in the history of Yale basketball.”
Swain played his 120th career game in a Yale jersey on Sunday, tying him for most all-time with Justin Sears ’16. Barring anything unexpected, he will hold the program record when Yale meets its first-round opponent in March Madness later this week.
Like Swain, Jones took a longer-run perspective as well, tracing Yale’s success on Sunday to the history of the program. Listing some of Yale’s best perimeter defenders over the years, Jones pointed out that Nick Victor ’16 was a model for Trey Phills ’19, who inspired current senior Gabbidon, who then set the tone for first-year Mbeng.
“I felt really good about it coming in,” Jones said. “For those guys to go and do what they did and win another championship speaks volumes of what the guys that have been in these uniforms before them have produced and what they’re continuing to produce … That’s how you build a program. You have guys emulate guys.”
A 7–0 run for Princeton five minutes into the second half put the Princeton fan section on its feet and brought the Tigers within four. Yale led 38–34 coming out of a timeout with 13:44 to play. Coming out of the stop in play, both teams traded buckets in a burst of scoring midway through the second half. Yale and Princeton scored a combined 19 points in two minutes and 18 seconds. Yale’s defense led to offense as Gabbidon deflected a Princeton pass, Knowling scooped it up and found a trailing Swain for three. Evbuomwan soon converted two layups within 30 seconds of each other, Swain stormed towards the rim on the other end and Princeton guard Ethan Wright answered with a three-pointer. Swain capped the scoring burst by dancing with Wright, stepping behind the three-point line and drilling a three-pointer to make it 48–43 Yale with 11:03 to go.
Princeton got within five on a Wright three-pointer before Swain again helped extend Yale’s lead. His deep, pull-up three pointer with five minutes to play got Yale fans the most excited they had been all game. When Princeton head coach Mitch Henderson called timeout twelve seconds later, Yale held a 58–48 lead with exactly five minutes left.
Evbuomwan, the Ivy League Player of the Year, added 12 points in the second half and finished the game with 20 for Princeton, but the Bulldogs held their advantage in the final minutes. The Yale crowd could sense an NCAA Tournament berth, standing to its feet as first-year point guard Bez Mbeng ’25 walked to the free-throw line for a one-and-one with Yale up 62–55 and 59 seconds remaining. Mbeng made both shots before Gabbidon missed the front end of a one-and-one 11 seconds later, leading to the Tigers’ burst of late-game three-point activity.
The game, closely contested all afternoon long, grew especially intense as Princeton quickly slashed away Yale’s advantage. Yale players locked arms on the bench when Mbeng walked to the line next, hitting both of his free throws to put Yale up 66–61 with 28 seconds left.
After another Llewellyn three, the Bulldogs delivered one final stop. Two timeouts and an inbounds pass later, Yale players stormed the court as Ivy League Tournament champions.
Yale has won one NCAA Tournament men’s basketball game in school history, a 2016 upset of fifth-seeded Baylor.
Update, Mar. 13: This story was updated to include a full recap of Sunday afternoon’s Ivy Madness championship game.