Tim Tai, Staff Photographer

First there was the long break for Yale men’s basketball, the 22-month gap that separated the Bulldogs’ last Ivy League game in March 2020 and what was supposed to be its return to league competition early this month. And then, as opponents around the conference began to face off a couple weeks ago, the Bulldogs’ own COVID-19 issues extended that gap, pausing practices and postponing their first three Ancient Eight games.

Finally, with warmups concluded, the national anthem complete and starting lineups announced Saturday afternoon vs. Cornell, there was one extra delay. A shot clock was faulty, and the extra 10 minutes it took to assemble a temporary one seemed to symbolize just how long the resumption of Ivy play has evaded Yale’s grasp.

When Yale (7–8, 1–0 Ivy) and Cornell (9–6, 1–3) tipped off at last, the Bulldogs made the most of their return. An 11-point lead at halftime ballooned into a 96–69 Yale win at the final buzzer, as the Elis relied on 10 players who each logged more than 10 minutes, including five who scored in double figures, in the well-balanced victory. Forward Isaiah Kelly ’23 led Yale with 18 points, while rookie forward Matt Knowling ’24 scored 17 and grabbed a game-high 8 rebounds.

Cornell was Yale’s first Ancient Eight opponent in 679 days, and with the victory the Bulldogs extended their pre-pandemic winning streak over the Big Red to 16 straight games. Reflecting on the big win postgame, Jones said he was excited to simply get a chance to play again.

“Having this pause and having guys catch COVID, you’re a test away from not playing a game and having to try to reschedule another one,” Jones said. “It’s just hard.”

Yale did not permit any fan attendance at the game, and an empty John J. Lee Amphitheater underscored that despite Yale’s COVID-19 pause being complete, the pandemic continues on.

Yale’s Ivy opener was held without fans on Saturday. (Tim Tai, Staff Photographer)

Mundane sounds and movements — the squeaks of cuts and pivots, referees’ whistles, the clank of the rim — took on extra clarity. When players pounded the ball sizing up free throws, the ball echoed with the cavernous space in total silence. At other moments, urgent communication between teammates (“Switch!”), coaches (“Who’s got 25?”) and the referees (“He hit his hand!”) was extra clear: “Stop fouling, give a step and stay in front,” Yale’s associate head coach Matt Kingsley urged his bench in the second half — both teams ultimately combined for 56 fouls. 

Knowling, who along with guard Bez Mbeng ’25 made his second career start Saturday, found the fanless atmosphere a little strange, but said the team made a conscious effort to counteract the occasional silence.

“We told ourselves we were going to bring our own energy and be there for each other and hype each other up, so I thought we did a good job with that,” Knowling said.

The Yale bench celebrates a three-pointer. (Tim Tai, Staff Photographer)

Before Sunday, Yale had played just one game in the last 31 days, traveling to California to face St. Mary’s in a 87–60 loss on Dec. 28. By the new year, COVID-19 cases activated health and safety protocols within the team. During its pause, Jones said Yale had no activities for the first five days of January before being able to return to limited individual workouts with up to five players practicing at a time. The team only held two full practices on Thursday and Friday before playing its Ivy opener in what Jones considered a “less-than-ideal situation,” especially given Cornell’s unique pace of play.

The Big Red play at one of the fastest tempos in the country and frequently cycle through substitutions; 14 of their players saw the court against Yale. Cornell entered the game with the sixth shortest average possession length, 15 seconds, and the ninth fastest adjusted tempo rating in all of NCAA Division I men’s basketball this season, according to the 2022 Pomeroy College Basketball Ratings (KenPom).

Jones said he thought Cornell might be the “worst team to play” in the Ivy, and “maybe the country,” when coming out of a COVID-19 pause and unsure of the team’s conditioning. Especially in the first half, Cornell often played man-to-man defense in the back court with defenders picking up their Yale assignments off the inbounds pass. The team then sometimes transitioned into a two-three zone once Yale had crossed the halfcourt mark.

First-year guard Bez Mbeng ’25, who made his second career start Saturday, passes the ball to captain and guard Jalen Gabbidon ’22. (Tim Tai, Staff Photographer)

11 Yale players saw the floor in the first half, and Jones said he would have distributed minutes like he did across a large group regardless of Yale’s opponent.

“I was rotating through subs just because I wanted to make sure we were fresh on the court because of COVID,” Jones explained. “If we would have played anybody else in the country, we would have still been doing something similar just because guys don’t have their legs underneath them.”

The Bulldogs’ defense, especially on the perimeter, was solid throughout. Cornell shot just six-of-26 from beyond the three-point arc, and the Elis captured 28 points off 20 Big Red turnovers. 

Kelly, whose 18 points marked a new career-high, said Yale emphasized transition defense, defensive communication and not leaving three-point shooters open on the wings during its scout for the game. 

“Effort and enthusiasm is just going to get us through the way, especially on the defensive end because we knew they liked to get up and down,” Kelly said. “So [we] just had to sprint back on D.”

Forward Isaiah Kelly ’23, who scored a career-high 18 points Saturday, drives past Cornell forward Guy Ragland Jr. (Tim Tai, Staff Photographer)

Yale entered halftime up 44–33, despite guard Azar Swain ’22, who entered the afternoon averaging 19.4 points per game as the Ivy League’s leading scorer, not scoring in the first frame. Captain and guard Jalen Gabbidon ’22 also played less than seven minutes in the first half after picking up two fouls.

“We have a great deal of depth on this team, and this is the biggest thing I’ll take away from this game: we had a really hard nonconference schedule,” Jones said. “The guys we played against, nonconference up and down, are all really, really good. In our league it comes back to us a little bit.”

Yale finished the nonconference season with a losing record for the first time since the 2017–18 season, but the NCAA’s NET Ranking considers the Elis’ nonconference schedule the second toughest in the league behind Penn’s. KenPom ranks its difficulty third in the conference.

Forward Matt Knowling ’24, center, scored a career-high 17 points and added eight rebounds in his second start of the season. (Tim Tai, Staff Photographer)

The Bulldogs showed how that non-league schedule prepared them for Ivy play in the second half, despite Cornell narrowing the gap in the first five minutes. The Big Red cut Yale’s advantage to six by the under-16 media timeout in the second half and narrowed it to 52–49 after forward Guy Ragland Jr. hit a three-pointer with 15:12 to play.

Yale responded by going on a 28–6 run over the next seven minutes, putting the game away and giving the Elis an 80–55 lead with eight minutes to go. Swain, who scored his first points of the game a couple minutes into the second, still finished in double figures with 12. He was just one of eight different Yale players to score over the course of the run.

Jones said he could not remember the time Swain, who became Yale’s all-time leading three-point scorer the last time it played at home vs. Monmouth in mid-December, did not score in a half. He added that he felt better about “our team and who we are” given that others stepped up in the dominant win. Forward EJ Jarvis ’23 also played for the first time since leaving with a head injury during Yale’s win over Albany in early December, though Jones said he was not yet at 100 percent.

Forward EJ Jarvis ’23 attempts a jump shot in the first half. He played 13 minutes in his first game since Dec. 7. (Tim Tai, Staff Photographer)

“Think about this,” Jones said. “[Swain] doesn’t score in the first half, and we’re up by 11. And Jalen Gabbidon’s got two fouls and he only plays a certain amount of minutes. That speaks volumes for the team, especially going forward.”

With the loss, Cornell falls to 1–3 after opening its Ivy slate with a win over Dartmouth (4–10, 1–2), a loss at Penn (6–11, 3–1) and a buzzer-beater defeat at Princeton (13–3, 3–0). Junior forward Jordan Jones, Cornell’s leading scorer, did not play at Yale Saturday. Dealing with a lower-leg injury, he has not made an appearance since Cornell visited Virginia Tech in early December. 

Yale faces its second Ivy League opponent on the road in Rhode Island Monday night when it visits Brown (9–10, 1–3). The Bears, which have played their first four games on the road, lost to the Tigers by two on Saturday afternoon.

Yale head coach James Jones earned his 340th career victory with the 96–69 win. (Tim Tai, Staff Photographer)

Jones was off to study film after Saturday’s press conference. He said he plans to watch recordings of Yale’s Saturday game vs. Cornell, Brown’s game at Princeton and three other Brown games before the team practices Sunday at 11 a.m.

Yale has won its Ivy League opener in eight straight seasons.

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.