Ben Raab, Contributing Photographer

Down 60–54 with just 27 seconds remaining in the Ivy League championship game against Brown, some Yale fans began making their way towards the exits. 

But a Bez Mbeng ’25 and-one layup and a John Poulakidas ’25 fadeaway three –– together with Brown’s poor free throw shooting –– made it a one point game with six seconds left and Yale ball. Moments later, Bulldog fans stormed the court as Matt Knowling ’24 made a game-winning floater as time expired to clinch the Ivy League title and book Yale’s spot in March Madness.

“I just wanted to put myself by the basket in case of a miss,” Knowling told the News after the game. “We were trying to get a play for someone else, but they found me. I didn’t think I was going to be that open. I work on that shot every day. I didn’t overthink it, I just let it go and it went in.”

Hours later, the No. 13 seeded Elis booked their tickets to Spokane, Washington, ahead of a first round March Madness matchup against No. 4 Auburn. At approximately 2,200 miles, Yale’s journey from New Haven to Spokane was the longest of any team in the 68-team NCAA tournament. And Auburn — ranked as the nation’s fourth-best team and coming off a dominant run to win the SEC championships — seemed like an impossible opponent. 

The Tigers went 24–0 in the regular season against non-quad one opponents, winning those games by an average margin of 16.2 points. Over 90 percent of March Madness brackets picked Auburn to defeat Yale. 

“Auburn wants to punch you in the face when the game starts, they wanna come after you,” Yale head coach James Jones said the day before the March 22 matchup. “But our guys have been battle-tested and they’ll be ready.” 

The Tigers flexed their might early on, leading 10–2 in the game’s opening minutes as star forward Johni Broome racked up seven quick points and three rebounds, nodding his head confidently after each basket. 

But the Bulldogs stayed in the game early thanks to Poulakidas’s hot shooting. The sharpshooting lefty made several key plays to save Yale’s offense as the shot-clock expired, including an and-one three pointer where Poulakidas got his own rebound on a missed free throw and dished it to August Mahoney ’24 for a deep three. The six-point possession made it 16-16 with 14:06 remaining in the half. 

The Tigers held several double-digit leads throughout the second half, but Yale refused to let the game turn into a blowout. Down 68–58 with 7:35 remaining, the Elis began to chip away at the Tigers lead, and with 2:11 remaining, Poulakidas hit his sixth three of the night to give the Bulldogs a 73–72 lead. From there, Yale never looked back. Players and coaches ran out onto the court to celebrate the historic upset victory.

“That’s the best team we’ve beaten in Yale basketball history, as far as I’m concerned,” Jones said after the game. 

Poulakidas finished with a game-high 28 points, earning attention from national media that included a feature on Good Morning America. 

But the upset win also gave rise to some more unlikely heroes. First-year center Samson Aletan ’27 came off the bench and recorded two key blocks on the game’s final possession to seal the victory. Aletan had not logged a single minute in any of the team’s last three games, but was called upon in the game’s final minute after starting center Danny Wolf ’26 fouled out.

Off the court, the University of Idaho’s student marching band, wearing Yale T-shirts, filled in for Yale’s band — who were absent due to spring break. After the game, Jones praised their performance, calling it an “incredibly gracious act.” 

Two days later, Yale fell to No. 5 San Diego State in an 85–57 loss in the tournament’s second round. Only one other team in program history — the 2016 Bulldogs — had made the second round prior to 2024.

“Basketball teaches life lessons, and the lesson today was that it’s not always going to be sunshine and rainbows, things get hard.” Jones said. “I couldn’t be prouder of this group.”

Jones, the all-time winningest coach in Yale basketball history, will begin his 26th season with the team next fall. 

BEN RAAB
Ben Raab covers faculty and academics at Yale and writes about the Yale men's basketball team. Originally from New York City, Ben is a sophomore in Pierson college pursuing a double major in history and political science.