Cornell all-time moment No. 5: Winning the MSG Holiday Festival

Cornell Holiday Festival

We’re counting down the top 10 moments in each Ivy school’s history as part of our Ivy League at 60 retrospective. Cornell is next because there’s nothing quite like radio calls of memorable crunchtime moments…

Everyone knows where this countdown is heading. Cornell had to win a lot of games to build itself up to winning three straight Ivy League championships and reach the Sweet 16. Some stand out more than others. We talked about beating Northwestern in 2006; a win that showed the rest of the league Cornell was for real. Next, Cornell had to make that statement to the rest of the country. Their chance – the 2009 MSG Holiday Festival.

Round 1: Davidson – December 20, 2009

Bob McKillop’s team was struggling early in the season and it looked like Davidson’s struggles weren’t going anywhere against Cornell. Cornell got off to a quick start behind 6-for-11 three-point shooting and 10 points apiece from Ryan Wittman and Jeff Foote. However, Cornell’s 13-point halftime lead wasn’t enough to make this one a snoozer. Davidson went from about as cold as it was outside that day to shooting 60 percent from the field and 5-for-8 from deep. With 10 minutes left in the game, Cornell’s lead was down to four and after a Nik Cochran jumper with 6:23 left to play, Davidson had its first advantage of the night. From Cochran’s jumper on, it was more like a game of seesaw. The final 6:23 brought five ties and eight lead changes – an epic finish was in order. Davidson had the ball up one with 47 seconds remaining. Cornell played D for the full 35, but a Jake Cohen offensive rebound forced Cornell to foul to stay in the game. Cohen hit the first, putting Davidson up two with 12 seconds left. For the second free throw, we go to Barry Leonard’s radio call for Cornell Athletics:

“Cohen’s second, he missed that one. Rebound Foote, six seconds in the game, here comes Dale, with five, with four, Louis with the drive, Louis with the layup, LAYUP DALE! DALE LAYS IT UP AND IN! OVERTIME AT THE GARDEN!”

It was Dale’s first points of the game. The senior point guard looked out of sorts for the previous 39 minutes and 59.3 seconds, but with the game on the line, there was no hesitation. Dale kept it going in overtime, hitting the first two Cornell field goals of the extra period. After two free throws from Dale with 28 seconds left, Davidson freshman J.P. Kuhlman would nail a three from the top of the arc to bring the Wildcats within one. Davidson’s Brendan McKillop then immediately fouled Dale, who missed both and then was whistled for a very questionable foul sending Davidson to the line down one with six seconds left. Kuhlman hit the first. Tied game. Barry Leonard on the call:

“Second of two for Kuhlman, and it’s in and out. Rebound Foote, five seconds in the game, off it goes to Wittman, with three, with two, Wittman for the win…..AND HE GOT IT! WITTMAN! HITS! CORNELL WINS! CORNELL WINS IN OVERTIME! RYAN! WITTMAN!”

Wittman’s half-court heave at the buzzer sent the Red to the finals against St. John’s.

The Finals: St. John’s – December 21, 2009

Unlike Davidson, St. John’s was coming into this game hot. The Red Storm was 9-1, the only blemish being a loss to No. 5 Duke at Cameron Indoor Arena. Also unlike Davidson, St. John’s was a familiar opponent for Cornell. The Red Storm beat Cornell a year earlier in the first round of the Preseason NIT Tournament.

There was one thing different this time around: Jon Jaques. Alex Tyler’s calf injury forced Cornell coach Steve Donahue to look for a new answer at the power forward position. Before his injury, Tyler was a fixture in Donahue’s starting lineup, having started 57 of the previous 58 games. Donahue experimented with Mark Coury and Adam Wire before settling on Jaques.  Jaques brought something Tyler, Coury and Wire couldn’t – the ability to step outside and stretch the defense. By the time the St. John’s game rolled around, Jaques was making only his third career start, the first time the senior played meaningful minutes in his collegiate career. Having to prepare for guys like Jeff Foote (16 points, 14 rebounds vs. Davidson), Ryan Wittman (29 points and the game winner vs. Davidson), and Louis Dale (nine points vs. Davidson, and the buzzer beater to send the game into overtime) in one day, maybe Jaques and his lack footage got lost in the shuffle.

“Teams that had some success with [Cornell] had played off their 4-man and were able to sink in the lane to help on the big fella [Foote].” After the game, it was clear where St. John’s head coach Norm Roberts went awry – he didn’t realize he was sagging off a 4-man in Jaques who had the ability to step out and hit five of six three-point tries, including the game-winner.

That’s right, Cornell beat St. John’s and won the 2009 Holiday Festival. It took a stifling second-half defensive effort, 19 points and 11 rebounds from Jeff Foote (the tournament MVP), and back-breaking three-pointer with 31 seconds left from Jaques.

These were statement wins for Cornell. Donahue called it “a huge step for the program.” Jeff Foote said that now “teams are starting to realize we’re for real and we can play with the big-name schools.” The wins proved Cornell could win games in a tournament environment, beat a legitimate power conference team (the win was Cornell’s first against a Big East opponent in 40 years), and most importantly show that when their back is against the wall, they could find any to win.

Again, we all know what this all-time Cornell basketball moment list is building toward. The thing is, I’m not totally convinced this team would have ascended as high as it did without this MSG Holiday Festival experience.

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