This year’s men’s NCAA tournament has its first Cinderella, and it’s a team without any scholarship players.
Despite recent controversy with expelled team captain Jack Montague, the 12th-seeded Yale Bulldogs, in their first NCAA tournament appearance in 54 years, pulled off the first major upset of this year’s big dance, stunning No. 5 seed Baylor 79-75 in the round of 64 at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center in Providence, Rhode Island, on Thursday.
Sophomore guard Makai Mason led Yale with 31 points, a school record for an NCAA tournament game. That included going 11-11 from the free throw line, which included some clutch makes late to keep the Bulldogs in front.
“I wasn’t really thinking anything to be honest with you,” Mason said. “I guess I was just trusting in my practice, hours and hours of just shooting foul shots at the end of a workout and making a certain amount in a row just before I’m able to leave the gym.
“I guess just the practice paid off today.”
It’s Yale’s first appearance in the NCAAs since 1962, which normally would be cause for celebration at the campus in New Haven, Connecticut. But the Bulldogs’ regular-season success has been overshadowed by campus outrage toward the basketball program.
Montague, a senior who was the team’s fourth-leading scorer, was expelled from the university February 10 after being accused of nonconsensual sex with another Yale student, according to his attorney. On Monday, Montague’s attorney announced that Montague will sue Yale. The university has not confirmed Montague’s expulsion, citing confidentiality.
The allegation against Montague sparked a recent protest on Yale’s campus calling for greater awareness and action on issues related to sexual assault.
Yale found itself surrounded by supporters on Thursday in Providence, with the game 90 minutes from campus.
“We’ve had everyone and their mother come out to say kind words to us, from the governor of Rhode Island to people from the team in ’62 to speak to us,” said senior forward Justin Sears, who finished with 18 points. “This was bigger than us, and we wanted to do it for all the Yale faithful out there, and we’re happy just to pull off the W.”
Yale is a member of the Ivy League. No players in that conference have athletic scholarships.
Before Thursday, Yale was 0-4 all-time in the NCAA tournament. For a school that was founded in 1701, there aren’t many opportunities to have many “firsts” anymore.
Sears called the win “huge.”
“Yale is an amazing place,” Sears said. “You can speak to anyone there and they’re doing something special, and the history is there, the prestige is there. Just to be among the first guys … to be the first to win that first big win of the tournament is huge. So everyone is going to look back and say this is the team where it started. It’s great right now. I don’t think it’s really hit us how big this is yet, but we’re going to take it in and get back to work tomorrow.”
Next up is No. 4 seed Duke, who defeated No. 13 UNC Wilmington 93-85 earlier Thursday. It will be a rematch for the Bulldogs and Blue Devils; Duke narrowly escaped with a 80-61 at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, North Carolina on November 25. It was a close game in which Yale led for much of the first half before Duke pulled away late in the second.
Yale’s win Thursday wasn’t the only big upset in the tournament. No. 12 Arkansas-Little Rock stunned No. 5 Purdue in double overtime, 85-83 at the Pepsi Center in Denver.
The Trojans trailed the Boilermakers by 13 points with under four minutes to go in the second half of regulation, but a three-pointer from deep by senior guard Josh Hagins with four seconds left forced the first extra period.
Hagins came through again to force the second overtime with the tying layup with 18 seconds to go. He would finish with 31 points.
Arkansas-Little Rock will face No. 4 Iowa State, who defeated No. 13 Iona 94-81, in the round of 32 on Saturday.