Sporting Life

Winter highlights: a March Madness upset

And a Yale diver's trip to the NCAA.

Evan Frondorf ’14 writes frequently about sports for the magazine.

Men’s basketball

Looking back, March 17–24, 2024, will certainly go down as one of the most dramatic weeks in Yale basketball history. In the span of eight days, Yale went from nearly missing out on March Madness to playing in the tournament’s second round, notching the program’s second-ever NCAA Tournament win and capturing an Ivy title in the process.

First, the Bulldogs faced off with Brown in the Ivy final at Columbia to decide the Ivy League’s automatic—and only—bid to the NCAA Tournament. The Bears were an unlikely opponent, given that the Ivies had appeared to be a three-way battle between Yale, Cornell, and Princeton all season. Meanwhile, Brown started the year 6–17 before taking a seven-game win streak to the championship game.

The final was a back-and-forth thriller, though a late surge by Brown seemed to have them on track for their first NCAA Tournament appearance in nearly 40 years. What happened next was a remarkable sequence that unfolded over the game’s final 27 seconds. Brown led 60–54 before Yale cut the lead to a single point with two must-have buckets.

After a late Yale foul, Brown missed both free throws, leading to a chance to win for Yale with six seconds remaining. On the ensuing play, Bez Mbeng ’25 sent the ball to Matt Knowling ’24, who was right under the basket—and Knowling delivered a beautiful floater through the hoop as time expired, sending the Bulldogs to March Madness as the team piled on top of their hero.

 “I didn’t think I was going to be that open,” said Knowling after the win. “I work on that shot every day. I just let it go, didn’t think about it, and it went in.” Captain August Mahoney ’24 summed up the emotions: “Mr. Knowling over here hit a game-winner to go to March Madness,” he said. “That’s a dream come true for him and a dream come true for me.”

That evening, Yale found out they would be a 13-seed heading to Spokane to face the SEC champion Auburn Tigers in the first round. What promised to be a physical test for the Bulldogs against the 4-seed immediately delivered: just three minutes into the game, Auburn starter Chad Baker-Mazara was ejected for an elbow to Mahoney, and Yale found it difficult to score in the paint even with the imposing seven-foot Danny Wolf ’26, a unanimous first-team All-Ivy selection.

But Yale would not go away and kept it close throughout. When Auburn racked up a double-digit lead with seven minutes to play, the Bulldogs chipped away from behind the arc and at the foul line, where Yale made 10 free throws in the final ten minutes. The standout was John Poulakidas ’25, a Chicagoland native who made ten of Yale’s 24 field goals, including six threes, for a season-high 28 points.

On his final bucket of the game, Poulakidas hit a long three-pointer, giving the Bulldogs the lead, 73–72, with two minutes to play. Finding his parents in the crowd, he yelled, “Oh my God,” mixing mock disbelief with a bit of the real thing.

“After I hit my first couple shots, obviously the flood gates opened,” he said afterward.

The Bulldogs kept the lead until the final buzzer. Auburn had a number of chances to tie or win in the waning moments. In the game’s final six seconds—much like Yale’s win over Brown—Auburn missed two free throws, recovered their own miss, had a game-tying lay-up blocked by Samson Aletan ’27, and then saw a game-winning three clang off the back of the rim. The upset was complete, 78-76.

 “I don’t know if that’s the best win in Yale basketball history, but I will tell you that’s the best basketball team that we’ve beaten in Yale basketball history,” said coach James Jones, capping his 25th year at the helm. “I couldn’t be prouder of my guys. I know everybody says that, but I actually really mean it. I couldn’t be prouder and I couldn’t love these guys more than I do right now.”

The Bulldogs’ upset, which ruined fans’ brackets all over the country, was the talk of the tournament. So was the appearance of the University of Idaho’s Vandal Marching Band members, who donned Yale t-shirts and filled in for Yale’s own band (which hadn’t made the trip to Spokane). With just one practice, the Idahoans played Yale fight songs at both tournament games.

In the Round of 32, the Bulldogs faced five-seed San Diego State, which made its own run last year to become the national runners-up. Sadly, any chance of a Yale trip to the Sweet Sixteen was squashed almost instantly, as the Aztecs jumped out to a 10-0 lead and were up by 23 at halftime. The final score was 85-57—but even in defeat, this Yale team already had the mental clarity to understand that their run was historic. “This past week or two have been the best weeks of my life,” said Mahoney. “And as much as it hurts now, I know I’m going to look back in a week, a month, a year, ten years, whatever it is, and just be really proud that I was a member of this basketball team.”

Swimming and diving
In diving, there’s always a choice: go with the biggest, riskiest (but not splashiest!) dives, or wow the judges with a more precise set of dives perfected over time. For Paige Lai ’26, the choice was made early in the year. “My main goal coming into the season wasn’t to necessarily get a lot of those crazy, crazy dives, but rather really refine and hone what I already knew,” says the Menlo Park, California, native. “And I think that’s tough for me, especially, because there’s a lot of repetition in that. That ‘wow factor’ is a big part of diving.”

But it paid off for Lai, as the sophomore made her second straight individual appearance at NCAAs, competing in both the national one-meter and three-meter events. Jeanpaul Ditto ’24 also competed for the men at both heights. “I’m really happy with where I netted out,” says Lai. “It’s gratifying to be able to see those dives now.”  

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