Playing at home for the first time since February 2020, Yale men’s basketball returned to the John J. Lee Amphitheater hardwood floor Tuesday night in its first competition since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Small reminders of the pandemic remained visible in the stands: blue surgical masks dotted the faces of fans in attendance and signs reminded spectators of rules requiring vaccination and prohibiting food, while kids aged 11 and younger were absent, per Yale’s current indoor sports attendance protocols. But down on the court, although coaches and players on the bench wore masks, the return of basketball was a relief — the rules and cadence of the game remained the same as they were when Yale competed 20 months ago.

Yale (1–0, 0–0 Ivy) settled in quickly against Division III opponent Vassar (0–0, 0–0 Liberty), leaning on a group of veteran guards as it opened an early lead that would only balloon as the game progressed. All 18 Bulldogs dressed for the game saw playing time in an 88–42 blowout, helping the Elis to an 11th straight win in their home opener.

“Honestly, it felt like I got transported back to 2020,” starting guard and captain Jalen Gabbidon ’22 said postgame. “Once we went out there and the tip went off, I think everyone was comfortable, and all the pregame jitters from the whole year and a half hiatus went away right away.”

Head coach James Jones started small, inserting four veteran guards in the starting five — Eze Dike ’22, Azar Swain ’22, Matthue Cotton ’23 and Gabbidon — alongside forward Isaiah Kelly ’23. The senior captain, who took a gap year and was originally a member of the class of 2021, scored Yale’s first points of the season, backing down his smaller Vassar defender before elevating for a bucket off the backboard. 

Captain Jalen Gabiddon ’22, pictured above converting a fast break dunk in the first half, finished the night with 10 points, five rebounds, three steals, two assists and a team-high plus-minus of +33. (William McCormack, Contributing Photographer)

Yale never trailed, jumping to a 12–6 advantage at the first media timeout before expanding its lead to 12 midway through the first half. Early reinforcements came in the form of rookie forward Yussif Basa-Ama ’24 and returning guard August Mahoney ’24, who were Jones’ first substitutions exactly five minutes into the first half. First-year forward Jack Molloy ’25 then entered the game alongside guard Michael Feinberg ’23 with just under 14 minutes to go in the first. Jones stuck to that rotation of nine in the first frame. 

Forward EJ Jarvis ’23 warmed up with his teammates, but did not ultimately dress for the contest and instead sported a suit at the end of the Yale bench. In a preseason interview with the News last week, Jones said Jarvis had dealt with a “myriad of injuries” but said the forward was expected to return to playing “sooner than later.”

In Jarvis’ absence — coupled with the uncertain injury status of senior forward Jameel Alausa ’22, who underwent double hip surgery last year and made a brief appearance in the game’s final two minutes — Jones turned to rookies Basa-Ama and Molloy to complement Kelly in the post. He said the injuries to those two post players also influenced his decision to start the game with four guards, a call likely made easier by the relative lack of height across the Brewers’ lineup. Basa-Ama grabbed a team-high six rebounds in his college debut.

Yale head coach James Jones glances up at the electronic scoreboard during a stop in play during the first half. (William McCormack, Contributing Photographer)

“There was a lot of emotion leading up to [the game],” Swain, who led all scorers with 16, said. “I felt nervous and anxious, [a] similar feeling [to] going into [the] Ivy League tournament almost. It was a different feeling. It’s been a long year and a half home — a lot of working out, a lot of time by myself — so it was amazing to be out there and feel that atmosphere again.”

For Yale undergraduates, the Bulldogs’ opener with Vassar also marked their first chance to pick up football tickets for the Yale–Harvard game on Nov. 20. The first 100 students to arrive also received white t-shirts with the inscription, “Beat Harvard Again.” Students filled the wooden bleachers to near capacity in the first half before trailing around the arena to line up for football tickets at halftime, at which point Yale had already built a 47–21 lead. Most returned to their seats for the second half, sticking around to see the Bulldogs open the game up even further.

As Jones turned to his entire bench in the second frame, 15 players recorded points in the final box score. Mahoney, a three-point specialist who played important minutes off the bench during his first year in 2019–20, finished with 11 on three-of-four shooting from beyond the arc. Gabbidon, Dike and Cotton all ended the night with 10 points apiece, while first-year guard Bez Mbeng ’25 led all Bulldogs with about 10 minutes of playing time in the second half.

1,468 fans attended Yale’s opener with Vassar on Tuesday. (William McCormack, Contributing Photographer)

“My job is to figure out who gets what minutes, and that’s not an easy thing to do having the number of guys we have in this program and the number of guys that can play well,” Jones said. “I’m excited for our future and where we are … like I said, I got to figure out who to play and when.”

Starting with an undermatched DIII opponent gave coaches a chance to play nearly the team’s entire roster and experiment with lineups. In another sign of the live drilling opportunities the contest afforded, Yale also occasionally turned to a full-court press in the first half.

In his interview with the News last week, Jones said Vassar head coach Ryan Mee used to work at Yale’s basketball camps. According to its website schedule, the DIII program treated Tuesday’s game as an exhibition.

“Coming off of COVID-19, I thought it was a good idea to just have another few days of practice if we could before we actually played a Division I opponent,” Jones said.

Guard August Mahoney ’24 contributed 11 points and shot three-of-four from deep off the bench. (William McCormack, Contributing Photographer)

Several of his Ivy League counterparts seemed to have the same idea. Every Ivy League men’s program except Penn started its season Tuesday night. Brown, Harvard and Princeton also began their nonconference slates against non-Division I opponents. Harvard beat Morehouse, 86–70, Brown took down Salve Regina, 89–59 and Princeton defeated Rutgers-Camden, 94–28.

Yale next hosts UMass on Friday at 8:00 p.m. in a doubleheader with the Yale women’s basketball program, who play Northeastern at Lee Amphitheater with a 5:30 p.m. tipoff.

Correction, Nov. 10: The article has been updated to reflect the NCAA divisions of Brown’s, Harvard’s and Princeton’s opponents on Tuesday night. These opponents are non-Division I, but not all are Division III. Morehouse plays in Division II.

William McCormack covered Yale men's basketball from 2018 to 2022. He served as Sports Editor and Digital Editor for the Managing Board of 2022 and also reported on the athletic administration as a staff reporter. Originally from Boston, he was in Timothy Dwight College.