AUBURN — Auburn University men’s basketball enjoyed a fun season, but it ended sooner than expected.
The Tigers notched a 27-7 record that peaked when they won the SEC Tournament, but Yale quickly extinguished their fire in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. The No. 4 seed Auburn jumped out to a commanding early lead, but missed free throws by the Tigers helped 13-seed Yale complete one of the largest upsets of the entire Round of 62.
“We respected our opponent,” said head coach Bruce Pearl. “We knew we’d have to play well to win. We did not take good care of the ball. We turned it over too much. They made big shots.”
Unlike the Bulldogs, Auburn failed to hit big shots after it led by 10 with 7:27 left in the game. Au-burn shot 2-of-6 from the free-throw line and made just two shots from the field in the last four minutes of the game to lose, 78-76.
The Tigers were going strong even after Chad Baker-Mazara — Auburn’s third-best scorer with 10 points per game — was ejected three minutes into the game because of a flagrant-2 foul. Baker-Mazara threw an elbow near the chest area of a Yale player while running side-by-side down the court.
“The decision to flagrant-2 Chad Baker, that’s a pretty tough call,” Pearl said. “[Baker-Mazara] got hit about five seconds earlier. Got tangled up; got a little bit of an elbow. They let it go. Maybe no-body saw it. About five seconds later, Chad hit him. It was inappropriate — clearly a flagrant 1. The fact that it was elevated to a flagrant 2 is a decision that the official had to make.”
At the time of his ejection, Auburn led 12-5, and it led at halftime, 41-34. Nonetheless, Tre Donaldson stood at the free-throw line with six seconds on the clock down by two. K.D. Johnson had just missed a free-throw as part of an and-one opportunity, but a jump ball in a scuffle for the rebound went in Auburn’s favor.
The ball went to Donaldson on the in-bound, and a foul gave him the opportunity to tie the game after the Tigers went down by four with 13 seconds to go. After missing the first free-throw, a miss on the second and a Johni Broome offensive rebound was just what Auburn required to stay alive.
Off the rebound, Broome deferred to Jaylin Williams, who’s attempt to tie it in the paint got reject-ed. The ball dribbled out to the 3-point line with the buzzer approaching, as Johnson recovered it and heaved up a 3-point prayer for the win. It fell short, deflecting off the front of the rim as 13-seed Yale stormed the floor victoriously.
“That’s the best basketball team we’ve beaten in Yale basketball history, as far as I’m concerned,” said Yale head coach James Jones.
Auburn didn’t have the offensive spark from Baker-Mazara late in the game, but it had the opportunity to increase the lead and then sever it with Jones, Johnson and Donaldson – three of Au-burn’s top five free-throw shooters — at the charity stripe. Instead, Auburn shot 15-for-22 at the line opposed to 21 Yale free points.
Auburn also turned it over six times in the final seven minutes, while Yale won the overall rebound battle, 14-11. Yale, however, turned it over just twice in the second half as it played its best basket-ball in crunch time.
Yale guard John Poulakidas put Yale in the lead for the first time in the game by splashing a 3-pointer with 2:11 in the game. Poulakidas — who averaged 13.5 points a game — went off for 28 points on 6-of-9 shooting from beyond the arc, including seven points in the final five minutes to send Yale to the Round of 32. The Bulldogs lost to 5-seed San Diego State on Sunday — 85-57.
Against Yale, SEC Tournament MVP Broome tallied his third double-double in the last four games, racking up 24 points and 13 rebounds to finish with 14 double-doubles on the year and 60 in his career. The senior was named to the All-SEC First Team and All-SEC Defensive Team and led the Tigers in scoring 17 times with eight games scoring more than 20 points this season.
The Plant City, Florida, native averaged 16.5 points, 8.5 rebounds and 2.2 blocks and assists per game in what will most likely be his last season at Auburn. The senior made a career-high 28 threes after making nine last season and none in two years at Morehead State.
“Johni had a great year,” Pearl said. “Carried this team, particularly at the offensive end. We rely on him a great deal. He’s one of the best centers in all of college basketball as an All-American.”
Along with Broome, fifth-year seniors Williams and Lior Berman finished their Auburn careers this season, while seniors Dylan Cardwell, Johnson and Chris Moore have one year of eligibility remaining due to the 2020-21 COVID year.
With incoming transfers Baker-Mazara, Jones and Chaney Johnson — as well as freshman Aden Holloway — returning with a year at Auburn under their belt that included a conference tournament title and NCAA Tournament learning experience, there’s a lot to like about this team going forward. Despite a disappointing finish, Pearl’s bunch turned in a memorable 2023-24 campaign.
“Auburn had a historic year,” Pearl said. “We got hot late. This team has done so many great things, so I’m very proud of them. They made history. This is the fourth different team at Auburn that has won a championship in the past seven years. They represented Auburn really well.”