The final regular season game followed a great storyline. One of my favorite coaches spurred his team to its best offensive showing of the season, 60% shooting from the field, 64% from deep, five players in double figures and 85 points in a win. The problem for me is the favorite coach is Brian Earl, skipper of the Cornell Big Red, who masterminded a terrific game plan in the 85-82 Cornell victory.
Although the Tigers mounted a heroic late comeback effort, make no mistake about it: This was a convincing and highly deserved win by the visitors from high above Cayuga’s waters.
For Tiger fans the highlight of the evening was the more emotional than usual senior night sendoff to three great Tigers: Richmond Aririguzoh, Jose Morales and Will Gladson.
RA arrived on the scene as the ultimate project. A 6’9″ kid with muscles on muscles topped by a smile as wide as Route 1 he came in without a lot of skills. The problem initially was that he had trouble running the length of the floor without running out of breath and he once threw a basketball from the Washington Road bridge only to miss his target: Lake Carnegie.
But you all knew how this story ends. He also brought with him an inner fire to succeed unlike any Mitch Henderson has ever seen at Princeton or anywhere in the Ivy League. By his junior year, RA had transformed himself into an All-Ivy player. He has led his team to back-to-back Ivy tournament appearances. He is the unquestioned leader of the Tigers, by example, and, in his senior year, by word as well. By all accounts a miserable free throw shooter early in his career he twice won games with key free throws in the last seconds, at Arizona State last year, and, this year, at home against Harvard. A ferocious rebounder, his field goal percentage is well north of 60%.
If RA is the long of it, Jose Morales is the short. The most diminutive Tiger at 5’9″, he is also the most energetic. Beyond that he plays with a fearlessness the inspires his bigger and stronger teammates. Although rarely a starter he has impacted the outcome of more games in terms of minutes played per game than anyone on the roster. Always a threat to steal the basketball, Morales disrupts the opponents’ offensive flow just by being on the floor. He also has a knack for producing in the clutch. His “and-one” three-point play at the end of the Harvard game at Jadwin in February is a perfect example.
Will Gladson’s name does not appear prominently in the record book. The 6’11” post player from Missouri arrived four years ago with the proverbial “can’t miss” label. In his very first game at Lafayette he made consecutive three pointers on his first collegiate shots. I remember thinking, “Kit Mueller is back!” But it was not to be. Devastating knee injuries severely limited his playing time, particularly in the last two seasons, but never took away his willingness to do anything to help his team. To a man the other Tiger players credit Gladson with helping each become better and to value winning above any personal goal. Henderson suggests that Gladson is, in some ways, more important on the bench than any coach.
As for the game last night, Cornell played superbly. The Tigers may have looked ahead to next week, particularly after the lackluster effort from Columbia the prior evening. But coach Earl, having thrashed the Tigers in Ithaca, had his charges primed to end their season on a high note.
The first half was a back-and-forth affair. Princeton, primarily due to the offensive fireworks from Jaelin Llewellyn and Jerome Desrosiers, held narrow margins throughout the first period, taking a 40-37 advantage to the locker room. Prophetically, one observer along press row lamented that the Big Red were “hanging around.” It was apparent that they were not going away all night.
It took Cornell just over two minutes to wrest the lead away from the Tigers, who would not reclaim it, and then only fleetingly, for 16 minutes and four seconds. The Cornell lead ran up to 10, 61-51, a margin the Big Red would maintain through most of the second period. Quite simply, the visitors were making shots, lots and lots of shots. They were sparked by huge contributions from bench players, Dean Noll and Jimmy Boeheim.
Noll would lead the team in scoring with 18 points. Boeheim, sidelined by an ankle injury a month ago, was described by the Cornell SID as “about 50%” prior to the game. One would hate to defend him when he gets back to 100%. In fact, we did not in Ithaca, where he was clearly the best player on the floor in another convincing Big Red win.
Last night his minutes were limited, but he gave it all he had. His 14 points and five late free throws proved decisive.
A Noll layup kept Cornell ahead by 10, 78-68, with four minutes left. A Llewellyn basket cut the lead to 8. The Tigers then deployed a full-court press which confused Cornell immediately. Two Llewellyn free throws made it a six-point game just under three minutes.
The press forced a turnover leading to another Llewellyn layup and one. 78-75. Thoroughly rattled at this point, Cornell inbounded to Ethan Wright. After a timeout, Llewellyn once again went to the line. 78-77 with 1:44 to go.
Stunned by the turn of events, Cornell once again turned the ball over in the Tigers’ frontcourt. And, once again, Llewellyn got to the basket, this time giving the Tigers the lead, 79-78, at the 1:32 mark.
Inexplicably eschewing the press, the Tigers allowed the ball to get to Boeheim who was able to post up. His three-point play put Cornell back in control. Four more Boeheim free throws sandwiched an RA three-point play to conclude the scoring with Cornell on top, 85-82. One hopes the valiant comeback effort will teach the Tigers some valuable lessons going into the tournament.
Llewellyn capped off a brilliant month of play with a career-high 30 points. He has raised his three-point percentage remarkably in the last month, establishing himself as the catalyst for this club going forward not only for the post season but for next year as well.
The Tigers played five straight weekends with splits, something that they simply must avoid next week. They enter Ivy Madness as the No. 3 seed against the host Harvard Crimson.