Cornell all-time moment No. 7: Beating Northwestern in 2006

Louis Dale drives for a layup in his first collegiate game, a 64-61 win over Northwestern.
Louis Dale drives for a layup in his first collegiate game, a 64-61 win over Northwestern.

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 a dynasty has to start somewhere…

It didn’t happen overnight for Steve Donahue, but a steady stream of talent was starting to come into the program, and results were slowly showing on the court. In 2005, Cornell went 8-6 in conference play, its first winning record in the Ivy League since 1993. The Red followed its second-place Ivy finish with a third-place finish in 2006, the first back-to-back top-half league finishes since the 1988 and 1989 campaigns.

There was a lot of optimism heading into the 2006-07 season and Cornell was again picked to finish third in the league. Before penciling in another top-half finish, Donahue had to figure out how to replace quite a bit of production. Lenny Collins and Ryan Rouke graduated. Collins was a scorer and a virtual lock to finish among the league’s leaders in the category. His junior year, Collins finished fifth in scoring average, and seventh in his senior year. Rouke was scrappy forward who didn’t light up the box score, but started 51 of his 54 games in a Cornell uniform. Cornell also had to be prepared to be without junior transfer Jason Hartford. In his first season at Cornell, Hartford averaged 7.7 points per game, fished fourth in the conference in field goal percentage, and first in three-point field goal percentage. Hartford would miss the entire 2006-07 season rehabbing a foot injury.

The No. 1 man on Donahue’s list to lead the charge was sophomore Adam Gore. Gore was fresh off of being named second-team All-Ivy and the league’s Rookie of the Year. He finished sixth in the conference in scoring and connected on 83 three-pointers, a Cornell single-season record (that would later be broken by Ryan Wittman). Seniors Andrew Naeve and Graham Dow, along with a distinguished freshman class highlighted by Ryan Wittman and Louis Dale, joined Gore.

Cornell opened its season at Northwestern. Not an easy task for the Red. Cornell hadn’t defeated a Big Ten opponent in 37 years and now had to take a young team on the road against a Bill Carmody team which was no stranger to the Ivy League. Early on, it was the Northwestern young guns that made the impression. In the first four minutes and 38 seconds, Northwestern sophomore Sterling Williams had six points and three rebounds, but more importantly, Northwestern had an early 10-point lead. Still, the Red fought back. Behind nine first-half points from Adam Gore and five combined three-pointers from Gore, Wittman and Dale, Cornell went to the locker room only down two.

The second half was a back-and-forth affair, seeing four ties, and nine lead changes. A Ryan Wittman layup with 4:41 left would put Cornell up for good, propelling the Red to a 64-61 victory. Adam Gore led the way with 20 points followed by the freshman Wittman, who played all 40 minutes, and dropped 18 points. However, it was a costly win for Cornell. With 32 seconds left in the game, Gore went down with a knee injury that would force him to miss the remainder of the season.

Putting the Gore injury aside, it was a huge win and an even bigger moment for the program. The win sent a message to the rest of the league that Cornell was for real and this freshman class was as legit as they came. The sky may have been the limit but the ceiling was another third-place conference finish. Cornell ended the 2007 campaign 16-12, Donahue’s first winning season in Ithaca.

The sky that year went to Penn. Penn’s 2007 Ivy League Championship gave them seven of the last nine titles, but it looked like it could be the end of an era in Philly. Perennial unanimous first team All-Ivy players Ibrahim Jaaber and Mark Zoller traded their jerseys for a caps and gowns and legendary head coach Fran Dunphy decided to take his 310 wins and nine NCAA tournament appearances four miles down the road to Temple.

So if the future was questionable at best for Penn, the league’s power would simply shift to Princeton, right? Princeton finished 2007 just 2-12 in league play, eighth in the standings. To put this in perspective, Princeton had not finished last in the league since 1945 and in the 62 years in between last place finishes, only fell outside the top half three other times.

Ok, maybe the power wouldn’t just shift to Princeton. Then who? Cornell’s 2007 season, commenced by its big win at Northwestern, signaled that maybe the Big Red deserved a shot at the crown.

Ryan Wittman was named Ivy League Rookie of the Year and received second team All-Ivy honors, the second straight Cornell freshman to take home both awards. The accolades didn’t stop there for Wittman. He set the school’s freshman scoring record and broke Gore’s school record for most three-pointers made in a season. The only knock on Louis Dale freshman campaign was that he wasn’t Wittman. Dale ended his freshman season ninth in the league in scoring and third in assists and was named an All-Ivy honorable mention.

Wittman and Dale with a season under their belts. Adam Gore and Jason Hartford fresh off injury.  There was something cooking in Ithaca for the 2007-08 season, a recipe people discovered after the win at Northwestern.

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