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 unfortunately, there’s no “two” in “three-peat.”
The 2009 title is like the forgotten child of Cornell’s mini-dynasty – not as historic as the first and not as successful as last.
In 2009, Cornell simply did what it was supposed to do. Not winning the Ivy League would have been like the Greg Maddux/Tom Glavine/John Smoltz Atlanta Braves teams not winning the National League East. Cornell was returning four starters, the reigning Ivy League Player of the Year, and seven of its top eight scorers from a team that went 22-6 (14-0 in conference) and captured its first title in 20 years. Cornell was the unanimous pick – again – to win the league and no one really expected anyone else to put up much of a fight.
What the ’09 team had to deal with that the champions of a year prior survived relatively unscathed from was a little adversity. After a successful first year back from tearing his ACL, news broke that Adam Gore’s senior season would be in doubt before it even begun, with a second knee injury. Cornell also had to start the season without Gore’s backcourt running mate and reigning Ivy League Player of the Year, Louis Dale, who was sidelined for the first eight games with a nagging hamstring injury.
Fair or not, after going 14-0 in conference with an average magin of victory of almost 13 points per game, this team was expected to win just about every Friday and Saturday night. I still remember traveling to Penn to cover the Saturday night game and checking the final score of the Friday game at Princeton. Cornell lost? By 20? And shot 12 percent from three? I thought my phone got the score wrong. Questions arose about how this team would react to losing its first league game in its last 20 tries. The one guy who knew how to handle it was Steve Donahue. In a mid-season interview with Slope Media, Donahue, speaking of the confence schedule ahead, said:
“There’s so much more that can happen even though we played a very good nonconference schedule. We all [conference opponents] know each other. The games are going to be much harder, more difficult, and different. That’s a big thing that we understand, the games are different, the competition plays you differently, so I would expect that you will see a lot more surprises than people think.”
Donahue’s mindset seemed to diffuse throughout the team. Even though Cornell would drop two more road games and went into the final conference weeekend still looking to clinch its second straight conference title, the team seemed unfazed. An 83-59 win over Penn on the final weekend of the season would do the trick and send the Red back to the NCAA Tournament. Injuries, new obstacles, whatever – it didn’t matter – Cornell was going dancing, again.
West region, 3 vs. 14 game, Missouri vs. Cornell. Not an easy task. Missouri was known for giving its opponents “40 minutes of hell,” a strategy consisting of full- court pressure and constant speed, looking to make opponents frantic and bait them into uncharacteristic mistakes. Missouri was so good at this style that Donahue ran his practices 5-on-6 to simulate the enviornment his team would face. To have a chance to win, Cornell had to stay poised, not turn the ball over, stay out of foul trouble and be deadly from behind the arc. In the first half, Missouri’s pressure wasn’t an issue. Cornell committed just three turnovers and went to the locker room trailing by just four. In the end, it was an unsuspecting culprit that proved to be the dagger – their shooting. In the second half, the third-ranked three-point shooting team in the nation shot just 22 percent from deep. Add a 36 percent shooting mark from the field for the night and the result wouldn’t be a favorable one. The four point halftime deficit quickly grew to 11 and at the end ballooned to a 78-59 defeat. Cornell would have to keep waiting for that elusive NCAA Tournament victory.
Forget the loss to Missouri. 21 wins. A conference championship. Two first team and one second team All Ivy players. The league’s Defensive Player and Rookie of the Year. 2009, a pretty darn good season.
(Editor’s note: Check out this really well done 2008-09 Cornell men’s basketball recruiting video created in part by our writer Jake Mastbaum at Slope Sports.)