We’ve counted down the top 10 moments in each Ivy school’s history as part of our Ivy League at 60 retrospective.
We Cornell did last because they are the Men of Last Call.
Over the course of writing the most memorable moments in Cornell basketball history, I’ve tried to lay out a story – the path a school with no discernible basketball pedigree took to becoming the top story of the biggest event in all of college sports.
It didn’t happen overnight.
Eventually, a novice group of freshmen with potential became young guns taking the league by storm and finished as savvy veterans playing with a purpose. After two straight defeats in the NCAA Tournament, the novelty of seeing the Cornell logo on college basketball’s biggest stage had worn off for the eight-man senior class. It was the last chance for the group who turned around Cornell basketball to become the first Ivy League team since 1998 to win an NCAA Tournament game. It was a mindset that had permeated throughout the whole team even before the season began.
“Obviously the first goal is to win the league and make it three in a row and then hopefully get to the tournament again and definitely win a game or two, Sweet 16 at least, and see where we go from there.” freshman Peter McMillan said in Nov. 2009. “I definitely think we can win a lot of NCAA Tournament games, get kinda far, you know, make some noise,” fellow freshman Errick Peck added.
Before even playing their first college basketball game, these freshmen didn’t know the first thing about winning in the Ivy League, let alone the NCAA Tournament. But they believed it because of the tone set by the upperclassmen. “It’s really great to learn from them [the seniors], they know everything,” said freshman Josh Figini. “They’re not just seniors, they’re star players in the league.” McMillan added. And that’s the point – their confidence was earned and the hype was justified. “It’s our best team so far, there’s no doubt. It’s the deepest, it’s the most talented, and the most experienced,” said head coach Steve Donahue.
When I wrote about the 2008 Ivy League title team, I noted it didn’t really matter whether Cornell went 13-0, 8-5, or 0-13 in nonconference games. What mattered most was how prepared they were for the conference season. That wasn’t the case in 2010 – aspirations were higher and to achieve its goals, Cornell had to start compiling a resume for the selection committee. There was no more time for moral victories. In past seasons, it may have been considered a “win” to have had double-digit halftime leads over Syracuse and Minnesota.
Looking back at the two defeats, Donahue said, “I wasn’t necessarily disappointed that we let those go. I was appreciative of our effort.” But now, looking ahead to the 2009-10 campaign, Donahue admitted he had a different mindset, “I look at our team now and I’d be very disappointed if we got to a game, playing on the road, up 12, and that happened. We should be able to close those games out.”
Opening the season on the road at Alabama, Cornell had an early chance to make the near misses a think of the past. It was an opportunity to play a quality major conference opponent on the road in a hostile environment, an experience this team would need if it planned to be successful in March. Alabama took a quick 2-0 lead on a JaMychal Green jumper in the paint, but unfortunately for the start of the Anthony Grant era, it would be the only lead Alabama would have that night. Cornell took a 26-20 advantage into the locker room and came out firing in the second half. The first six Cornell field goals of the second period were all from downtown (three from Wittman, one from Dale, one from Chris Wroblewski, and one from Peck). Alabama wouldn’t go quietly, cutting it to a one point game with 6:15 remaining and then to a two point game with 2:36 to play. But in the end, 23 points from Ryan Wittman, 17 points and seven rebounds from Jeff Foote, and 13 points and five assists from Louis Dale were too much for Alabama to handle. I think Mike DeCoury of the Sporting News put it best:
What this really was: A warning to the other big-time teams that’ll be playing the Big Red over the next couple of months. Seton Hall, Syracuse, Saint Joseph’s – they cannot be looking forward to their games against Cornell.
The statement Cornell was trying to make, consider it made. It was a win that Cornell probably wouldn’t come away with in seasons past, and like DeCoury said, the rest of the country was taking notice. After beating Monmouth, Seton Hall head coach Bobby Gonzalez told reporters, “People don’t understand how tough our next game is with Cornell. They’re a top 25 team. They’re really good.”
Cornell fell to Seton Hall and Syracuse, went 4-0 in the Legends Classic, and took a five-game winning streak into the MSG Holiday Festival. I won’t break down the Holiday Festival because we already did that, but just like against Alabama, Cornell played tough opponents in an imposing environment down to the wire, and won. The way it happened was special – a 30-foot buzzer beat by Wittman to beat Davidson and a three-pointer by Jon Jaques with 31 seconds left to seal the victory against St. John’s. Cornell was riding high.
The Big Red were 12-2 and just the fourth Ivy team since 1990 to win at least 10 nonconference games. (The other three: 1997-98 Princeton, 1993-94 Penn, 1990-91 Princeton, all of which went undefeated in conference play, two of which won in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.) Growing expectations and historic comparisons would have to wait because Cornell had to take its nonconference momentum to the place where basketball was invented and play the No. 1 team in the country.
Donahue simply called it “a great college basketball game.” It took the full 40 minutes for Kansas to beat Cornell on Jan. 7, 71-66, and extend the nation’s longest home winning streak. Cornell had a lead with under a minute remaining and had a chance to take another with under 10 ticks left of the clock. Wins over Alabama, St. John’s, UMass and St. Joseph’s were one thing, but competing wire to wire with the No. 1 team in the country made Cornell hard to ignore. Articles were popping up in the national media comparing Cornell to teams like Steph Curry’s 2008 Davidson team, but the truth was Cornell really hadn’t won anything yet.
In a league with no conference tournament, the conference slate was far from a formality. In a midseason interview, Donahue reiterated the fact that “There’s no tougher game than road games in the Ivy League. They know how to play you, they know your tendencies, they’re ready for you, and they’re going to grind out every possession.” Cornell dropped three conference games the year before and now faced a stronger Ivy League. A couple missteps and what this group was working for could very easily slip away.
Cornell quickly moved to 3-0 in conference beating Columbia (twice) and Dartmouth by an average of 27 points, but Cornell wasn’t the only Ivy team making headlines. Harvard had a resume of its own, beating Boston College on the road and falling to UConn by only six points in a nationally televised game. The Crimson’s nonconference play and their 3-0 Ivy start by an average of 21 points per game had some people talking, for the first time ever, about a two-bid Ivy League. Others were starting to make Harvard a trendy pick to dethrone Cornell as the Ivy champion. A collision course was set between 17-3 (3-0) Cornell and 14-3 (3-0) Harvard in what was the most anticipated Ivy League matchup in recent history.
The result was a resounding victory for Cornell. A 16-0 run in the first half, a 17-0 run in the second half, all five Big Red starters in double figures, forcing Harvard into 25 turnovers, and limiting the Crimson to its lowest point total of the season (50) – the outcome was never in question. By the end of the 36-point Cornell victory, the sold out crowd at Newman Arena was chanting “Top 25.”
The ESPN/USA Today coaches’ poll would soon agree with Newman Nation. On Feb. 2, Cornell became the first Ivy team to find itself in the national rankings (No. 25) since Princeton in 1998. It was the first national ranking in 59 years for Cornell and the first time since the 1969-70 season that a school other than Penn or Princeton would receive the honor. “It’s nice to be recognized, but at the same time it doesn’t move us any closer to our goal,” Ryan Wittman said at the time. Wins against Yale and Brown the following weekend would move Cornell up to No. 22 in the rankings, but a date at the Palestra was looming.
The stars aligned that night for Penn and the Quakers played a perfect game, defeating the Big Red on Feb. 12. It was a testament to the truth behind Donahue’s belief that “There’s no tougher game than road games in the Ivy League.” A nationally ranked team doesn’t usually lose to a team that only had three wins on the season, but in the Ivy League, it happened. Cornell (now 6-1 in conference) couldn’t dwell on the loss. It meant that Cornell fell out of first place and now had to travel to play a road game against the very team it was looking up at in the standings, Princeton (5-0). It was the biggest game of the season. A win at Alabama, Holiday Festival champions, wire-to-wire with Kansas, national ranking – it all wouldn’t matter if unable to beat Princeton. A loss would put Cornell two games out of first place and not in control of its own destiny. The game was slow and methodical, as most games with Princeton are. An uncharacteristically poor shooting performance by Ryan Wittman changed its tune when the senior scored seven points in the final 2:14 of the contest. When a Doug Davis top of the key three- pointer at the buzzer was off the mark, Cornell was back on top of the Ivy League, having beaten Princeton, 48-45. There would be no more scares for Cornell. The Red won their remaining six conference games and became just the third team in Ivy League history to win three consecutive crowns.
The reward of course, was a return to the NCAA Tournament. It was the final run for this group, and the players knew it. Commenting on the mindset of his team, Donahue said, “I go back to two years ago, those guys knew they were going to be back again so maybe they didn’t understand the sense of urgency. Every single guy in this locker room understands that this might be the last time they put the uniform on for Cornell.” Senior Alex Tyler added, “This may be the last time we play basketball for Cornell. Being juniors last year, we didn’t have quite the sense of urgency because we had another year. We know we’re good enough to win – we know we’re good enough to advance. It’s time to step up and do it.”
If Cornell was going to “step up and do it,” it would have to beat an opponent for which the blood lines ran thick. Being pitted up against his former protégé in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, former Penn coach Fran Dunphy “didn’t think the Temple-Cornell matchup was all that random.” The game boiled down to Cornell’s prolific offense and three-point shooting against Temple’s suffocating half-court defense. The offense won.
“I thought we did everything you need to do against a very good defensive team,” Donahue said after the game. Temple constantly switched from man-to-man, to a 1-3-1 zone, to a pressing attack. Nothing worked. Dale got retribution for two NCAA Tournament games he’d prefer to forget. The senior point guard effortlessly penetrated into the second level of the Temple defense all game. Once Dale was in the paint, things got easy; take it to the goal himself, lay it up to a seven-footer, or dish it out to the man who has hit the most three pointers in Ivy League history. It all worked. Dale finished with 21 points and seven assists, Foote with 16 points and seven rebounds, and finally, Wittman with 20 points on 4-for-6 shooting from three. After an 18-6 run in the second half, it became an 18-point game with nine minutes left – the crowd could start to sense what was coming. It would never get to single digits again.
Cornell did it. A 78-63 victory – the school’s first ever NCAA Tournament victory, the first by an Ivy League team in 12 years.
“We can enjoy it right now, until we get dressed, then it’s on to the next one,” Dale said immediately after the win. Cornell had to remain focused after winning the biggest game in school history, something senior tri-captain Jon Jaques said was “easy because our goal wasn’t just to win one game.” Standing in the way of their goal of becoming the first Ivy League team to dance into the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament since 1979, was the fourth-seeded Wisconsin Badgers. Just like playing Temple, the matchup with Wisconsin would be a contrast of styles. The Badgers played a slow and methodical style of basketball. Bo Ryan’s team was known for running an efficient offense and not breaking on defense. Wisconsin led the nation in number of games holding opponents to under 50 points and committed the least amount of turnovers in the country. But that afternoon in Jacksonville, Fla., it wouldn’t matter.
It was Cornell’s most dominating performance of the season and Wisconsin didn’t stand a chance. Two jumpers by Wittman and a layup off a turnover, a jumper, and a three for Jaques, and it was 11-1 Cornell, less than three minutes in. Cornell’s offense shredded one of the best defenses in the nation, shooting 61 percent from the field (53 percent from three) and scored the most points of any Wisconsin opponent all season.
“I guess now we’re one of the best teams in Ivy League history,” Louis Dale said after his career-high 26-point effort in a rare moment of reflection. Jaques added, “We don’t think of ourselves as a Cinderella, we’re better than that.” He was right. Cornell wasn’t just a normal underdog. After two wins by an average of 15.5 points per game, Cornell was one of the most dominant teams in the entire tournament.
It was onto the East Regional Semifinal for Cornell in a clash of polar opposites – senior leadership vs. freshman talent, tradition on the court vs. tradition in the classroom. Cornell would have its hands full with a Kentucky team whose roster boasted five future first-round NBA draft picks. Kentucky may have been the best team remaining in the field, but the game would be played in a home court like environment for Cornell. The familiar confines of the Carrier Dome was just 54 miles from Newman Arena, and by opening tip, the 20,000+ crowd was 80 percent red.
Just like against Wisconsin, Cornell started off hot. A Dale three pointer made it 10-2 in favor of Cornell and the Carrier Dome sounded like the roof was about to pop off. However, when Kentucky got rolling, it could be a machine and after Dale’s three, the Wildcats put their speed, athleticism, and defensive prowess on display. Kentucky looked surgical in the final 15 minutes of the half. Led by John Wall, Kentucky ended the half on a 30-6 run, 28 points of which came on layups or dunks. During the run, Cornell turned the ball over 11 times (leading to 17 Kentucky points) in what Patrick Patterson called “the best defense we’ve played all year.” It looked like it was finally over for Cornell.
But the clock hadn’t struck midnight yet. A 17-point Kentucky lead was whittled down to 10 with 9:27 to go. With 5:24 left in the game, Louis Dale drove right and bumped into Kentucky’s DeAndre Liggins. Liggins fell, but there was no whistle. Dale stepped back and fired a three from the right wing. It rolled around the rim and down. The building exploded. It was a six-point game with under six to play. Cornell had a chance. But it was the closest Cornell would get. Kentucky would score the next six points, starting with a DeMarcus Cousins jump hook. The timely run, dominance on the offensive glass, and solid free throw shooting sealed the deal for the Wildcats. 62-45 was the final, Kentucky over Cornell.
“I know there will be a time when we look back on this season and realize what we did,” Louis Dale right after the game said. What Cornell “did” was set a new standard for excellence in the Ivy League.
Recently, it has been Harvard who putting its name in the Ivy hoops history books. Whether it’s Harvard now or someone else down the road, they’ll always be compared to the 2010 Cornell team. 29 wins (an Ivy League record), a Sweet 16 appearance – Cornell set the new mark between having a great season and one that’s truly amazing. It was a remarkable ride for the Big Red, one that was built the right way and is truly deserving of being the No. 1 moment in Cornell basketball history.