There was hope for Brian Earl and Cornell Sunday afternoon, a little gleam that shined through at Chase Family Arena. Sure, Hartford is a middle-of-the-road America East team (see: probably not Yale, Harvard, or Penn), but there the Big Red were, making shots, dominating inside and outside, finally able to remove some of the stench from an eight-game losing streak that had morale not-so-cheery as Christmas approaches.
And then it all fell apart.
A 15-point lead with nine minutes to go vanished and there was seemingly nothing Earl or anyone else with Cornell could do to stop it as Hartford came back for an 80-76 victory that left Earl searching for answers that weren’t readily available.
“It’s the story of the season,” Earl said. “We’ve had leads in almost every game against similar competition, but we can’t figure out a way to put it away. Major double-digit leads against OK teams, and I’m at a loss for how to explain it right now. We’ve tried to figure it out. It’s not like we haven’t tried to address it.”
The simple fix for Earl is to get his team to make more shots and prevent opponents from doing so. Good, so we’re done here, right?
For most of Sunday, they did. Jimmy Boeheim came out and looked unguardable, even against a trash-talking graduate transfer from the ACC like Malik Ellison. Boeheim gave as good as he got and had 16 points as Cornell led 40-32 at the break. Hartford started to claw back into the game after finding a way to slow down Boeheim, but the Big Red was able to get contributions from junior point guard Terrance McBride and – more unexpectedly – sophomore Kobe Dickson, who had a big bucket and a couple of offensive rebounds to go with it.
After Dickson hit Dean Noll for a layup, Cornell led 69-55 and had the ball with 8:00 left at the media time out. KenPom gave them a 96.9% chance of winning at that point.
It would be outscored 25-7 the rest of the way.
Some credit has to go to Hartford, of course. The Hawks hit four three-pointers down the stretch, three of them from Traci Carter. Hartford went 13-for-24 from behind the arc for the contest. More disturbing for Earl and his staff would be his team’s response to the Hawks’ pressure. As the lead dwindled, Cornell got more and more tight to the point where the end result seemed inevitable.
“They (Hartford) just sort of said, ‘If it keeps going this way, we’re going to lose.’ They turned up the pressure and made us uncomfortable. And that was the difference. We hadn’t seen a lot of that from them on video, but there were opportunities to do the right thing and we just didn’t do it.”
And while three-pointers are one thing, Cornell not only had no answer for Hartford’s Czech freshman Miroslav Stafl, but couldn’t get anywhere near the rim at the other end as well. Which left the first 32 minutes of the contest as a distant memory by the time Earl was collecting his thoughts postgame.
“Offensively, I think we’re getting good shots,” Earl said. “So I don’t know where the answers are. We have to shoot it a better percentage. From a statistical perspective, we’re not as bad as our record shows, but nobody cares.”
But while the record will obviously follow Cornell through the holiday season (and with Penn State next, it’s likely to be 1-10), all is not lost in the modern Ivy League, where the rules stipulate four teams will be in the postseason tournament. Boeheim, who finished with 26, is long and quick enough to be a threat against anyone in the Ivy League. The Big Red will obviously have to improve on their three-point shooting (26.3%, 345th nationally), and find a consistent presence in the paint on both ends of the floor.
However, a closer look at the resume (yes, it still smells a little) shows a one-point loss at a good Bryant, a three-point defeat to Lafayette and a close game at Colgate. They will open Ivy League play with a home-and-home against Columbia, after which we should know more about their prospects going forward.
A couple of wins there and they would already be perhaps a third of the way to their second Ivy League Tournament appearance in three years. It’s not as far-fetched as you think. Not this season.
“We’ll make the fact that the Ivy race is pretty open clear to our guys if they don’t already know it,” Earl said. “But we have to clear up what our issues are first.”