The women’s and men’s basketball teams for Columbia and Cornell arrived at Levien Gymnasium on Saturday winless in conference play. While the main goal for each team was to secure its first league win, it was almost as important for the individual teams to feel good about their games as they move into the hardest stretch of their seasons.
The Columbia men had, perhaps, their best game of the season as they dismantled Cornell, 88-62. On the women’s side, the Big Red led for 36:49 of the 40-minute contest in route to an important 57-47 road win over the Lions. In dominating their respective games, the Columbia men and Cornell women have strong momentum heading into next Saturday’s rematches in Ithaca. The two losing squads and their staffs, however, were left trying to come to grips with their play and figuring out how to turn things around, for next weekend and the remainder of the year.
Meg Griffith is missing three starters and two key reserves from last year’s 13-14 (3-13 Ivy) team due to graduation, injury and departure. While her squad is anchored by senior captains Camille Zimmerman and Paige Tippett, the 11-person roster consists of seven underclass student-athletes. As such, growing pains are to be expected. Despite a challenging nonconference schedule, the Lions entered finals with a 6-6 record. Since the end of exams, the team is 0-5 with four losses between 19 and 24 points to highly rated Houston, Rice, Princeton and Penn, as well as a two-point loss to then 3-9 Hampton.
The team hoped that a return home for the first time since Dec. 11 and a matchup against an even younger Ivy rival would have provided the spark for a turnaround. Unfortunately, it was not meant to be. The Big Red, which entered the weekend at 4-11, pushed Columbia around all day long. “Cornell’s just tougher than we are,” Griffith said postgame. “If we want to show up and battle with them, we have to play tough as well.”
With the losing streak reaching six games, Griffith seems to know the general reason: “I just don’t think the people that have done what they’ve done all year are doing what they should be doing. I just think everybody’s the worst version of themselves right now.” As a result, the lineup has been changing, trying to find the right player who can provide a spark. “We’re not producing, so everybody else gets a chance,” Griffith said.
For an intense and successful person like Griffith, a two-time second-team All-Ivy guard, Columbia Athletics Hall of Fame member and a six-year member of the Princeton basketball staff, the key is finding a way to teach her players, while getting the captains to take charge and have the team hold itself accountable so the coach doesn’t have to feel as if she needs to put on her old uniforms that she keeps in her office. “In this game with a young team, we’ve (the coaches) got to do a lot of talking, but we’re trying to remove ourselves from that. We want it to become the players’ team and that’s when your team gets really good.”
Like coach Griffith, Brian Earl arrived at his first head coaching job two years ago from Princeton. During his time with the Tigers, the ‘98-’99 Ivy Player of the Year has had tremendous success as both a player and a coach. Similar to the Columbia women’s team, the Cornell men have had to endure a number of losses from graduation, injury and defections in Earl’s season and a half in East Hill. He does have juniors Matt Morgan, the league’s top offensive weapon, and Stone Gettings, one of the most improved Ivy players over the last two seasons. However, junior guard Troy Whiteside, a 23-game starter in ‘16-’17, has been out all year, senior point-forward Wil Bathurst, who averaged 21.9 minutes in 29 games in ‘16-’17, played in only seven games before a season-ending injury, and Jordan Abdur-Ra’oof, a 25-game starter in ‘15-’16 who missed the entire ‘16-’17 season, has not regained his pre-injury form. As a result, the coach has had to rely on a number of inexperienced athletes playing major minutes for the second straight year.
The Big Red evened their early season record at 3-3 following back-to-back wins against Toledo (KenPom No. 101) at home and Duquesne (No. 175) on the road. As important as those victories were for the team, they may have given the players a false sense of confidence as they inched closer to league play.
“We’ve had some okay wins to start the season, but the Ivy League is always tougher,” Earl said after the game. “We have Stone and Matt who’ve played a lot, but after that you’re looking at guys that don’t understand how intense it is to maybe walk into a place like this (Levien Gymnasium), Princeton and the Palestra, and say, ‘Well, we beat Duquesne, what’s this going to be about?’ They find out pretty quickly, it’s a different animal.”
Cornell has now lost its last six Division I contests by an average of 16 points, the last two by a combined total of 63. The team’s defense in its Division I games is near the bottom of the country in adjusted efficiency (112.5), three point shooting (39.3 percent), steal rate (6.2 percent) and turnover rate (14.5 percent). The offense is doing a good job with two pointers (53.3 percent), but struggling from three (31.6 percent) and the free throw line (69.4 percent). The coach is well aware of these numbers and his roster. However, with his pedigree, he also knows what it takes to succeed in the Ancient Eight.
“Winning is difficult,” Earl noted. “So far in my tenure, we haven’t won, but I have had some experience with winning. We just need to get to a place where we’re doing the things I recognize, and we’re nowhere near that right now.”
The team returns home for the first time in over a month for a rematch with Columbia that the coach does not view as a make-or-break game. While Penn earned a spot in last year’s Ivy Tournament after starting the league 0-6, Cornell’s immediate objective is much more modest than an upper-division finish or a first conference win.
“We just have to do our best our next time out,” Earl said. “That’s our goal.”