Courtesy of Auburn Athletics

In front of a sellout crowd of more than 9,000 fans, No. 21 Auburn surged to an early lead against the Yale men’s basketball team Saturday and never lost it.

The Bulldogs closed the gap to four at one point in the first half, but the Tigers (7–1, 0–0 SEC) soon split away. The Auburn team, which advanced to the Final Four in 2019 and now features a projected top-five 2022 NBA Draft pick in freshman forward Jabari Smith, expanded its halftime lead to 17 and increased its advantage over Yale (5–5, 0–0 Ivy) in the second frame to win 86–64.

Smith scored 17 points, while Auburn guard K.D. Johnson finished with a game-high 19. Auburn blocked 14 of Yale’s 65 field goal attempts, including several during the game’s first few frenzied minutes as the Bulldogs adjusted to their relative lack of size and the stadium’s hostile environment.

“Going into the game we knew it was going to be a hectic environment with all the hype around their team, so we knew we had to stick together and block all of the extra noise,” said guard Matthue Cotton ’23, who helped Yale settle in after the first few minutes and scored a team-high 14 points. 

The 9,121 seat Auburn Arena presented a stark contrast to the atmosphere Yale has encountered in most games this year. Although 8,265 people took in its game at Seton Hall last month, the contest took place in a larger NHL stadium, the Prudential Center, which can seat up to 19,500. Meanwhile, home attendance this season is averaging 1,066 at the John J. Lee Amphitheater, where all fans are required to be fully vaccinated, wear face coverings and be over the age of 11. In Alabama, a massive, maskless, holiday-ugly-sweater-clad (and donut-fed) student section dubbed “The Jungle” awaited the Elis. American gymnast Suni Lee, the 2020 Olympics all-around gold medalist and a freshman at Auburn, was among those in attendance.

Yale initially appeared out of its element, starting zero-for-12 from the field and falling to an 11–0 hole, before settling in and slowing the game’s pace. “We don’t want to get hit in the mouth first,” Auburn’s Johnson told reporters after the game. “We want to do the hitting.”

Cotton scored the Elis’ first basket just under six minutes into the game and contributed seven of the Bulldogs’ first 11 points. Forward EJ Jarvis ’23 found the guard for an open dunk, and Cotton hit a three-pointer about a minute later. A pair of free throws from first-year forward Jack Molloy ’25 cut Auburn’s lead to 17–13 within four minutes of Yale scoring its first points.

“The lid wouldn’t come off the basket in the first few minutes,” Cotton told the News. “But just continuing to run our offense the way we practice and being selfless allowed us to settle into the game.”

Yale temporarily kept pace with Auburn — captain and guard Jalen Gabbidon ’22 hit his second three-pointer of the half to bring the score to 26–19 Auburn with 7:46 to play in the half before Auburn ended the period on a 21–11 run with 10 Johnson points. Yale entered the break down 47–30.

In their two most recent games versus Stony Brook and Lehigh, the Bulldogs started the second half with offensive firepower — they scored 54 in the second half against Stony Brook and 57 against Lehigh. On Saturday, Auburn instead built on its lead in the second, riding a 16–6 run in the period’s first five minutes.

Forward Isaiah Kelly’s ’23 shooting offered a bright spot for Yale in the second. He drilled all three of his attempts from beyond the arc in the half, scoring all 12 of his points in the final 20 minutes. Entering the game, the starting forward from Augusta, Georgia had only attempted seven triples in Yale’s first nine games this season and had only made two total three-pointers over the course of his college career.

“I think that if my shot continues to fall it will force teams to guard me closer which will allow for me to use my speed and quickness to create more offense for the team,” Kelly told the News after Saturday’s game. “If I can make plays to get my teammates open, I know they will knock down shots. So by me being more aggressive and looking to shoot [and] drive the ball, that will open up opportunities for the shooters I have around me.”

Kelly, who is the perimeter-oriented Bulldogs’ tallest starter at 6 feet 7 inches, also said he has been trying to take more threes in practice. He started the game matched up with 7-foot-1-inch Auburn center Walker Kessler. Auburn’s size helped it outscore the Bulldogs in the paint by a 34–20 margin.

Auburn finished the afternoon with a 22-point victory and its 37th straight nonconference home win. The Tigers limited guard Azar Swain ’22, who entered the game second in the Ivy League averaging 18.9 points per game and had scored more than 20 in five of Yale’s last six games, to just nine points. Saturday’s contest snapped his double-figure scoring streak of a dozen games dating back to the 2019–20 season.

“It was a good win against a team that got a chance to be in the [2019 NCAA] tournament, an experienced team,” Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl told Auburn Sports Network radio after the game. “You can see the guys took them seriously, got off to a great start, played really hard defensively …”

In his pregame media availability late last week, Pearl said one of the reasons Auburn scheduled the game was because the Bulldogs, who have won four Ivy League titles in the last six years, are the type of non-league opponent his Tigers could encounter in March Madness. Yale received $85,000 to play the game, according to a contract between the two schools obtained through an open records request the News filed with Auburn University.

“Gosh, [head coach] James Jones is in his 22nd [season] at Yale, he’s like one of those guys that you don’t schedule,” Pearl said, according to Auburn Undercover of the 247 Sports network. Yale has found it increasingly difficult to schedule nonconference games in recent years. “So that’s why Mike Burgomaster scheduled him,” he added, referring to one of his assistant coaches.

Saturday’s contest was the first-ever meeting between the two men’s basketball programs. Yale hosts Albany back in New Haven on Tuesday night.

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.