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East Catholic’s Matt Knowling’s buzzer-beater puts Yale men in NCAA Tournament

NEW YORK — Matt Knowling was not ready to call it a career at Yale, not the way the Ivy League championship game was going.

Knowling, the senior from Ellington and East Catholic, scored at the buzzer Sunday to complete a stirring comeback in the final half minute, lifting Yale to a 62-61 win over Brown at Columbia’s Levien Gym.

“Hard to describe,” Knowling said. “I was just trying to get myself in position for an offensive rebound, hang out by the basket. Bez (Mbeng) found me, I was wide open, I practice that shot every day.”

Yale was down by six with but 27 seconds to go, but the Bears could not put it away at the foul line. August Mahoney hit a 3-pointer to keep Yale alive, then a miss at the line by Brown’s Nana Owusu-Anane gave Yale more hope. A 3-pointer from John Poulakidas pulled the Bulldogs within one. Malachi Ndur missed two at the line with 10 seconds left, and Mahoney got the rebound to give Yale its last shot.

“Every kid dreams of moments like this,” Mahoney said. “I mean, Mr. Knowling over here, hit a game-winner to go to March Madness. What kid doesn’t envision himself in the back yard, three, two, one, go to March Madness? I’m so happy for him. He’s going to make that shot 10 times out of 10.”

Brown, with a foul to give, committed one to set up its defense, but out of the stoppage Yale worked the ball to Knowling, open to the left of the basket, and he put it in as the buzzer sounded, putting Yale in the NCAA Tournament for the fourth time since 2016. Mbeng got the assist.

“The fact the last basket was scored off an assist by a kid trying to make a play for someone else is just so meaningful to me as a coach,” Yale coach James Jones said.

The fate that struck other state college men’s basketball teams nearly fell upon Yale (22-10), which had trouble finding its rhythm on offense until the desperate final minutes. Central Connecticut, Quinnipiac, Fairfield and Sacred Heart all finished at or near the top of their conferences, but were knocked off by lower seeds in the MAAC and NEC tournaments. That’s why the call it “March Madness,” unless like UConn a team is both great all season and hot at the right time.

Brown (14-18, 8-6 in the Ivy League) beat Yale in overtime in the final regular season game to earn the fourth and last spot in the mini-tournament, and stunned top-seeded Princeton on Friday, so the Bears were the hot team, coming in with confidence and little to lose.

“When I first got in the league we were not one of the better teams,” said Jones, in his 25th season at Yale. “And I fought like hell to have a tournament. Now that we’re one of the better teams, I don’t like it so much. But I wouldn’t take away this opportunity from our guys for all the tea in China. To experience what they just experienced is something they’ll never forget.”

Jones said Friday, this Yale team looked like the best he’s had. The first half was a combination of aggressive defense and off-the-mark shooting, Brown 7 for 25, Yale 10 for 29. Danny Wolf, Yale’s 7-foot center, was struggling to make shots, but dominating on the defensive end with eight rebounds, three blocks and a steal in the half.

Mahoney had seven points and Yale took a 26-22 lead into the break. The Bulldogs opened up a six-point lead early in the second half, but missed four free throws, preventing more separation. Poulakidas hit a couple of threes for Yale midway through the half, but Brown tied it and took the lead with 8:15 to play and controlled the game from there until the final half-minute, opening up the six-point lead.

“I just told these guys with two minutes to go, ‘if we’re going to lose, we’re going to lose like a champion,” Mahoney said. “We’re going to go down with a fight. These guys listened to me, man. We didn’t stop believing for one second, and that’s what championships teams do.”

Mahoney (15 points) hit a pair of three down the stretch to keep Yale alive, but the Bears continued to answer and had the chance to put it away at the line. Kino Lilly Jr., who led Brown with 21 points, hit two to make it 60-54 with 27 seconds to go, but the three misses in four attempts by his teammates gave the seasoned Yale team it’s path to victory.

“All I was think is, I wanted to win,” Knowling said. “My team, we did everything we could to win, so kudos to my teammates, my coaches, they put us in position to win.”

Wolf, the tournament MVP, had nine points, 13 rebounds and four blocks, Poulakidas scored 18, Mahoney 15 and Knowling had 11 points, five rebounds and five assists for Yale. The last two may have been the biggest of his college career, though he has another year of eligibility from the pandemic the he could use outside of the Ivy League.

“Matt’s a special player, he’s a winner,” Jones said. “You just feel comfortable when he has the ball. He’s going to make the right decision. So today, Matt was 5 for 12, five rebounds, five assists and no turnovers, and that’s from a 6-foot-5 (power forward), we’re asking him to do some stuff under the basket you don’t normally ask someone his size to do. We’re fortunate he’s on our team.”

Yale left the building to look for a nearby restaurant to have dinner and watch the NCAA Selection Show before bussing back to New Haven.