Tim Tai, Staff Photographer

For the second straight night, defense on an opponent’s final possession determined the outcome of a Yale men’s basketball game. Except on Saturday, with Yale undergraduates allowed back in the John J. Lee Amphitheater for the first time since Yale stiffened fan policies in response to the Omicron variant, the Bulldogs’ five defenders had additional support from a jeering mass of students.

On Harvard’s last set possession, Yale guard Jalen Gabbidon ’22 defended one side of Crimson guard Noah Kirkwood, while students clad in the night’s theme color, black, heckled him from behind. Kirkwood heated up late in the second half to score a game-high 21 points, but missed his final shot attempt of the night. With a defensive rebound and one extra free throw, Yale (12–9, 6–1 Ivy) secured a 58–55 win to keep it atop the Ivy League standings and end an eight-game regular-season losing streak against Harvard (11–8, 3–4).

In a low-scoring contest where both teams shot poorly from the field, the Bulldogs locked down Harvard in the first half and maintained their early lead as it got threatened down the stretch. As it did on Friday night in another three-point win over Dartmouth (5–14, 2–6), Yale led for the majority of the game — 36 of 40 minutes on Saturday night.

“We’ve beaten Harvard in the tournament, we’ve played tight games with them here,” Gabbidon said of the now expired regular-season losing streak. “It’s just a matter of putting 40 minutes together. It has nothing to do with the myth that we can’t beat them in the regular season. It’s just about executing what we do [and] sticking to our principles — in spite of the crowd, in spite of the hype and buildup of it.”

Saturday’s game was the first time Yale undergraduates were allowed back in the John J. Lee Amphitheater since Yale stiffened fan policies in response to the Omicron variant. (Tim Tai, Staff Photographer)

Yale guard Azar Swain ’22, the Ivy League’s leading scorer averaging 19.7 points per game, again topped the Bulldogs with 19 points. The Elis gave him almost complete control on their final possessions. With less than a minute to go and Yale up 55–50, head coach James Jones waved at Swain’s teammates to clear out, isolating the Yale star one-on-one with Harvard guard Evan Nelson. Swain proceeded to dance his way to a midrange jumper that pushed Yale’s lead to 57–50 with 42 seconds to go. Harvard’s full-court pressure helped it turn the contest into a one-possession game before Kirkwood missed his final attempt to send Yale students out of Lee Amphitheater happy — but not before one “goodbye” chant.

For more than two hours before that final Harvard chance, the student crowd told the story of the game as it grew throughout the first half and narrated the action — big shots, bad misses, questionable calls — with its collective reaction. Yale’s first points — Swain cut, received a pass from first-year starting guard Bez Mbeng ’25 and laid it up — sent students into a frenzy. They lost it again later in the half when Kirkwood snagged a pass intended for Swain, raced down the floor and missed a wide-open layup on the fast break. A putback dunk from EJ Jarvis ’23 and a three-pointer from guard John Poulakidas ’25 with six seconds left in the half provided other electrifying moments in the first frame.

Yale entered halftime up 27–14, the Poulakidas triple giving the Elis what would be their biggest lead of the game. Harvard’s free-throw percentage in the first half offered quantitative proof of the student energy: the Crimson made just one of their six attempts. 

“I think the students have been all cooped up in their rooms, not being able to socialize,” Jones said. “What basketball does and what sports do, they galvanize a community, and tonight we were galvanized … I think that all of Yale, all the kids here, they felt like they were part of that win, and they were.”

Students’ presence on Saturday was not expected a few days ago, and the game was still not open to the general public. Yale has permitted fully-vaccinated faculty, staff, graduate and professional students to attend sporting events since Jan. 17 and originally set Monday, Feb. 7 as the date for undergraduates’ return. But an announcement Friday afternoon ended Yale’s phase-two campus quarantine two days early — on Saturday as opposed to this Monday — and allowed Yale College students back to games starting Saturday. 

Before the University issued that official decision, Jarvis had already prepared. Players heard rumors that student fans might be permitted to return early, and Jarvis used his graphic-design skills to create a virtual flyer for the Saturday night game. The graphic included tipoff details, announced a “black out” color theme for students — in Saturday’s second leg of a back-to-back for both teams, Yale wore dark jerseys on Saturday, while Harvard was in white — and quickly found its way into group chats and onto Instagram stories across campus once University administrators announced the shortened campus quarantine on Friday afternoon.

Undergraduate students, many of whom saw the graphic Jarvis made, filled the arena after Yale relaxed COVID-19 attendance restrictions two days early. (Tim Tai, Staff Photographer)

“I sent it to my friends, put it on social media, said send it to everybody,” Jarvis said. “I really didn’t know how many students would turn out, but it was great to see everybody come out like they did, just looking at the crowd and seeing it all the way packed to the top.”

12 minutes in the first half, the side of the gym opposite each bench was nearly entirely filled with undergraduates wearing black. Another layer lined the railing near the gym’s entrance. Five or six minutes of game time later, additional students migrated to seats on the other side of the stands and even Dean of Yale College Marvin Chun had taken a seat courtside.

Jarvis played perhaps the best game of his career in their presence, recording new career highs with nine rebounds, three steals and two blocks. Forward Matt Knowling ’24 scored 10 points and grabbed nine boards alongside Jarvis. Saturday’s game was the first men’s basketball game that undergraduates could attend in person since Yale’s Dec. 14 contest against Monmouth

Philip Gorski, a professor of sociology and religious studies, said it was “great” to see students gathering again. 

“It’s amazing,” Gorski, who joined the Yale faculty in 2004, said above the din and through a dark mask during halftime. “I’ve never seen it this full.”

Jones said Saturday’s showing was “special,” but also insisted that the student crowds were not unprecedented. After the 2001–2002 season, when Yale shared an Ivy League championship in Jones’ third year as head coach, the New Haven fire marshal forced Yale to reduce the capacity at the Lee Amphitheater in response to how many fans descended on JLA that winter. An editorial published in the News 19 years ago entitled “Make more room for Yale basketball fans” described attendance during the Penn-Princeton home weekend in 2002 as “closer to four thousand” than the listed 3,100. 

Today, official capacity at JLA is 2,532, though the gym can comfortably accommodate more — attendance at the 2020 Yale-Harvard home game was listed as 2,706. Yale officially recorded Saturday’s attendance as 1,104, keeping the predominantly-undergraduate crowd below a 50-percent capacity limit that indoor athletic venues must keep until Feb. 11, when Yale arenas can then operate at 75-percent capacity.

But despite the student energy and Yale’s 13-point lead at the half, neither team played sharp offensive basketball, combining to make a mere six of their 32 three-point attempts. Yale turned the ball over 17 times, tied for its second-most turnovers in a game this season. For Harvard, Kirkwood scored 21 points despite shooting seven-of-20 from the field and scoring only two points in the first half.

Yale led 36–25 with 12 minutes to play in the second half when Jones picked up a very rare technical foul — recounting the technical call postgame, he said he could not remember the last one he got before Saturday. Jones pumped his fist in frustration after a foul was not called on a Jarvis attempt at the rim and said he caught himself from slamming the scorer’s table. When he turned around, the official across the court had blown his whistle to call a technical, leaving Jones “in disbelief.”

“I wasn’t out on the floor, I wasn’t out of the [coaching] box,” Jones said. “A man’s allowed to have some emotion through the course of the game. I just can’t imagine how I’m getting a technical for that.

“Logic dictates to me that getting angry and yelling at the ref and acting foolish doesn’t help you win basketball games,” Jones added. “But I did want to make a point to let them know that that was a foul and they just let it go. I didn’t think we got a good whistle the whole night. But it is what it is. We got the win, and that’s all that matters.”

Yale head coach James Jones said he could not remember the last time he received a technical foul. (Tim Tai, Staff Photographer)

The call sent Kirkwood on a scoring spurt as he netted 15 points over the next six minutes, making both free throws and hitting a corner jumper when Harvard subsequently received possession. As the game stretched to its conclusion, crowd volume potentially peaked on a Gabbidon and-one off an offensive rebound that put Yale up 53–48 with 3:35 to play. Two blocks from forward Isaiah Kelly ’23 sandwiched the score, setting the stage for a tense final few minutes of back-and-forth possessions, official reviews and Kirkwood’s last shot attempt.

Once the Bulldogs had hung on through the final minutes, on paper the win simply added  another positive tally to the Elis’ league record. But as Yale, now halfway through its league schedule, gets set for the second half of conference play, the game might also represent a key source of morale. With handshake lines complete, Jarvis, one of the last players on the floor, jumped up and spun, turning to the departing crowd one final time before running off the court towards Yale’s locker room. 

Harvard does not have to wait long for a rematch. The two teams meet again in Boston this Wednesday 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.