Princeton has itself a wacky Empire State weekend

Bill Courtney said "Stop" to Princeton's 50-37 lead in the second half. Cornell responded with a 25-2 run to defeat the Tigers. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
Bill Courtney said “Stop” to Princeton’s 50-37 lead in the second half. Cornell responded with a 25-2 run to defeat the Tigers. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

Another wild and wacky weekend in the Ivy League began for the Tigers in the recently friendly confines of Levien Gym at Columbia. The typical back and forth of the first half quickly gave way to a Tiger offensive outburst turning a close game into something of a rout. Spurred by super-sub Ben Hazel’s second-half heroics, the Tigers cruised to a relatively easy 74-62 victory. A Harvard win in New Haven on Saturday together with the anticipated Tiger success over a demoralized Cornell quintet reeling from Penn’s come-from-behind victory would create a three-way race for the Ivy title with Princeton very much a contender. The Crimson did their part, but the Tigers self-destructed in Ithaca.

On Saturday at Newman Arena, both clubs started slowly, a not unusual circumstance in the second game of the weekend. Six Tiger threes helped the Tigers to a 29-25 lead at the break in a game marked by defensive enthusiasm. Neither team was able to establish anything close to dominance in the first half. For the first five minutes of the second half, the back-and-forth continued. Princeton was clinging to a less than comfortable 40-36 lead when the rejuvenated senior Ben Hazel was called upon once again to deliver the spark for which he has become recently famous. Immediately, he found Steven Cook for a pretty look from downtown to make the score 43-36 Tigers. In the Tigers’ next six possessions over 5 minutes Hazel repeatedly called for the ball at the top of the key while directing his teammates to clear the driving lanes. The result: seven points and a 50-37 lead for the visitors. The momentum-sustaining road sweep and a 4-1 record was now only a tantalizing 10 minutes away.

But this ain’t last year’s Big Red, nor was it even Friday night’s! Shonn Miller, whose absence last year opened a hole in the Cornell lineup that simply could not be filled, decided to take matters into his own capable hands. With a lot of help from guards Galal Cancer and Devin Cherry, Miller spurred the Big Red on a most improbable comeback effort. For an eight-minute stretch beginning at the 10 minute mark, Cornell mounted an extraordinary 25-2 run, turning a 13-point deficit into a 10-point lead, 62-52. The aforementioned Big Red trio accounted for all of the points except for Pat Smith’s huge three to keep the rally alive when the Tigers were still in it.

The final score was Cornell 68, Princeton 60. Miller, Cancer and Cherry accumulated 45 of Cornell’s points, most coming during the eight-minute explosion. One can only imagine the mood in the bus as the Tigers embarked on the five-hour trip home through the desolate wintry darkness.

It is not too much to suggest that Cornell faced a real gut-check moment, especially after blowing a huge lead the previous night against a Penn team not heretofore known for spirited comebacks. With the season essentially on the line, Miller and company answered the bell. Miller probably won’t win this season’s POY honors; that award awaits either Wesley Saunders or Justin Sears, but he is every bit as important to Cornell as the other stars are to their squads. Hats off to coach Bill Courtney, who refused to let his charges hang their heads when the Tigers threatened to put the game out of reach. Cornell’s reach for redemption from last year’s catastrophe has not yet exceeded its grasp.

The young Tigers will have to forget this one soon. Brown and Yale, each smarting from near misses at home against Harvard, will come calling at Jadwin this week. Trailing Harvard and Yale by one in the loss column means the Tigers remain contenders for the title. Whether their status is legitimate or only theoretical will be determined on Valentine’s Night.

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