PROVIDENCE, R.I. – With the victory secure and his postgame obligations complete, James Jones burst into the Yale locker room to celebrate with his team. They greeted him with a collective scream, mobbed him in a giant embrace and saluted him by dumping cups of cold water on his bald head. They hugged and hollered and danced in a moment of genuine joy.
What does the first time feel like? No. 12 seed Yale’s 79–75 win over No. 5 Baylor was the first NCAA tournament victory in school history. It’s not easy to make history at an elite institution that has produced five presidents in 315 years in existence. But early Thursday evening the Bulldogs executed a celebration to match the moment.
“No one understands what that’s like, right?” Jones says. “It’s just you and your men and your staff. It’s that collectively energy. They love me and I love them. That’s what it’s all about.”
Yale’s historic triumph had all the hallmarks of a vintage NCAA tournament upset. There was the backstory of heartbreak, as Yale missed the Big Dance last year after last-second losses to Dartmouth and Harvard. There was requisite longing, as the Bulldogs hadn’t appeared in the NCAAs since 1962. And of course, there was a hero from central casting, sophomore guard Makai Mason, whose harmonic name almost seemed predetermined for March lore.
At 6'2" and 185 pounds and sporting perfectly coifed brown hair, Mason looks more a paperboy than a basketball star. But behind his wholesome appearance is stone-cold poise. Mason scored a career-high 31 points and hit all 11 of his free throws. Few would have picked the boyish Yale point guard point as the potential hero as the Bulldogs walked off the bus Thursday. But by the time the game ended there was no doubt about who the best player on the floor had been.
Mason shot Baylor out of its zone with a bevy of step-backs, floaters and jumpers. Yale seemed determined to squander its 13-point second-half lead with a nervous final two minutes, which included an air-balled free throw by Nick Victor with six seconds left that gave Baylor a chance to win at the end. But indicative of the sloppy execution and penchant for one-on-one play throughout the game, Baylor senior guard Lester Medford turned the ball over when he lost a behind-the-back dribble.
When Yale’s lead looked shaky, Mason took over. He demanded the ball, settled things down and drained his free throws. “Casual, routine Makai,” says Yale senior forward Justin Sears. “There’s no one in the country that can guard that guy. You have to send two people at him.”
This upset had all the classic trappings. It began with poise, when Yale’s Nick Victor (6'5") blocked Baylor 6'8" senior forward Rico Gathers to set the tone in the first half. It continued with opportunism, as reserve forward Blake Reynolds drained a huge three-pointer in spot duty after entering the game averaging 2.4 points. And there was the requisite strategic flare, as Yale dissected Baylor with backdoor cuts when the Bears went man-to-man.
“When you think of Ivy League schools, you don’t think of schools with athletes who’ll punch you in the mouth and go right back at you,” Sears says. “Once we did that, they were a little shocked.”
As Yale stuck together to the final buzzer, Baylor fell apart. The Bears looked like the archetype of an undisciplined team. Star senior forward Taurean Prince got a technical for hanging on the rim. Prince got into a verbal altercation with Gathers and then shoved his teammate during a timeout; the clip spread quickly on Twitter. (Baylor coach Scott Drew said he didn’t see the incident and he didn’t know about it until a reporter asked him about it after the game.)
The sum of Yale’s parts proved to be exponentially greater than Baylor’s superior individual talent. Baylor’s coaching, poise and discipline were all drastically lacking. And the Bears’ garish florescent lime uniforms only highlighted their flaws.
Under the brightest lights of the NCAA tournament, Baylor wilted for the second consecutive year. The Bears melted down last year as a No. 3 seed, blowing a 10-point lead to No. 14 Georgia State in the final two minutes. It would be unfair to cast Drew as a poor postseason coach, as he’s 8–6 with two appearances in the Elite Eight. But the depths of these past two NCAA performances will certainly follow him until Baylor’s NCAA results take a turn.
“You look at everyone’s body of work like you look at a player,” says Drew. “If a player has a game where he doesn’t make threes, that doesn’t mean he can’t shoot. You look at the body of work of what programs and teams have done.”
Yale entered the game shrouded by controversy, as senior captain Jack Montague was expelled from school in February after a female student accused him of having non-consensual sex with her. Montague has denied the allegation and this week issued a strongly worded statement that included a pledge to sue the university.
Montague attended Thursday’s game, but drew enough attention from reporters and photographers that he eventually left. An SI reporter witnessed Montague leaving through a fire exit late in the half. “Jack went to the game today out of loyalty to the team and to cheer on his teammates, who have been like brothers to him for the past four years,” says Karen Schwartzman, Montague’s spokeswoman.
Jones wanted the focus of Yale’s first NCAA tournament appearance in 54 years to be on the floor. In the end, the Bulldogs drew some of the conversation back onto the court with one of Thursday’s biggest upsets.
“Right now, I’m trying to get ready to beat Duke,” says Jones of his second-round opponent on Saturday.
After decades of waiting, the Bulldogs have finally experienced an NCAA tournament victory. Their next one could come as soon as Saturday.