No. 13 Yale upsets No. 4 Auburn in dramatic final moments behind John Poulakidas’ 28 points

Yale caught fire at the perfect time. Led by junior guard John Poulakidas with a career-high 28 points, the scrappy No. 13 Bulldogs upset the No. 4 Auburn Tigers 78-76 in the first round of the men’s NCAA Tournament on Friday.

“It wasn’t a one-man show tonight,” said Poulakidas, whose clutch 3-pointer gave Yale a 73-72 lead with just over two minutes remaining.

From there, the Bulldogs kept the pressure on despite a back-and-forth ending that saw the Tigers with a late chance to tie the game. Auburn’s Tre Donaldson drew a foul and went to the line with 6.1 seconds on the clock, but missed both free throws. The Tigers threw up multiple late attempts on the last possession but couldn’t close it despite their offensive rebounds in the last seconds.

“It’s tough to reflect on the season when you just went through one of the most disappointing losses in your career,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl told reporters after the game. “This team has done so many great things. I’m so proud of them.”

Auburn’s loss follows another early SEC upset after No. 3 Kentucky fell to No. 14 Oakland on Thursday.

The Tigers shot 50.9 percent from the field compared to the Bulldogs’ 46.2 percent shooting, but multiple late turnovers and missed free throws cost Auburn the game after holding a 10-point lead with 7:27 on the clock. Poulakidas’ lights-out shooting didn’t help either. Poulakidas was 10-of-15 shooting from the floor and 6-of-9 shooting from 3.

Yale’s August Mahoney and Danny Wolf put up double-digit figures, scoring 14 and 13 points, respectively. For Auburn, junior forward Johni Broome led the scoring with 24 points and added a game-high 13 rebounds, while Denver Jones scored 17 points and Jaylin Williams contributed 13.

Yale coach James Jones, who has led the program since 1999, reflected on the momentous win.

“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 as far as I’m concerned,” he said.

The win marked the Bulldogs’ second-ever victory in the NCAA Tournament. Their first was over Baylor in 2016 in the first round before losing to Duke in the Round of 32. Since then, they have made three more March Madness appearances, including in 2019 and 2022.

Yale will face No. 5 San Diego State in the second round on Sunday after the Aztecs advanced following a 69-65 win over UAB.

How did this happen?

The Ivy League champion outplayed the SEC champion. It’s actually that simple. Nothing about this was fluky or unusual. Yale didn’t need a miracle heave at the end. Yale, in fact, didn’t play all that well in certain areas: It missed 10 free throws as a team and committed 11 turnovers that led to 15 points for Auburn. And the Bulldogs had to play through foul trouble for both leading scorer Wolf — the 7-foot sophomore eventually fouled out in the last minute — and starting guard Mahoney, who picked up three personals in the first half alone.

Even in a game in which they led for a grand total of four minutes and 19 seconds, it felt like Yale was there, step-for-step, with the No. 4 seed. And then all it needed was a nudge. Poulakidas’ 28 points were a two-handed push. It was high-level shotmaking all night from the junior whom Yale coaches consider one of the hardest workers, if not the hardest worker, to ever pass through the program. — Brian Hamilton, college basketball senior writer

What went wrong for Auburn?

A little hubris inevitably plays into this, but mostly the Tigers lacked poise throughout. A first-half ejection for Chad Baker-Mazara throwing a blatant elbow might’ve been a canary in the coal mine. Auburn tried to play the bully and it didn’t work, and that then turned into an abundance of complaining. The second half was a mess with nine turnovers that allowed Yale to stay within arm’s length and six missed free throws, including the critical two in the last 10 seconds.

And it certainly doesn’t help when your starting point guard, Aden Holloway, plays only 13 minutes, records zero assists and misses all five shots he takes. This was a group that had won six in a row overall and made a regular habit of thumping opponents by double-digits, fostering the idea that it could be a worthy threat to UConn in the East Region. Turns out, everyone, probably Auburn included, got ahead of themselves. — Hamilton

Required reading

(Photo: Steph Chambers / Getty Images)

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