Cornell women prepare for Ivy League slate

For Dayna Smith’s Cornell squad, the start of the 2021-22 season has by no means been easy. In addition to a challenging nonconference slate, the team with just six returners from two seasons ago has battled injuries, illness and COVID-19 protocols through the first seven weeks of the new campaign.

“There’s been zero pouting, zero anger [and] lack of focus,” Smith said. “We’ve practiced with six people, we’ve practiced with seven people … The people we have with us are giving us everything they have.”

In the first few weeks of the season, the Big Red navigated a flu bug running its course through the team. But then, as nonconference play progressed, COVID-19 cases increased and bothered both the team and the university. Cornell was forced to postpone its home game against Washington State on Dec. 19 and its game at Duquesne on Dec. 21.

Additionally, a Dec. 28 game against Division ll Clarion was postponed, but fortunately for Big Red, Lock Haven, another Dll school, agreed to travel to Ithaca for a game on Dec. 29. Cornell took care of business, winning, 82-48.

“We overcame adversity,” Smith said. “To see us come in and have the energy and excitement to play and how we started off the game aggressive. I was proud … It was a real crazy three weeks. People missing practices, canceling practice [and] canceling games.”

“It was nice to get this big win,” said junior guard Ania McNicholas, who scored 14 points with seven rebounds and seven assists. “[We need to] feed off the energy of the win.”

Up to this point, Cornell had seen a mixed bag of results. At 5-6, the Big Red dropped a pair of contests at Wake Forest and Syracuse, as well as a game against now 1-12 Eastern Tennessee State. But a blowout of Colgate and a Shannon Mulroy buzzer-beater to defeat Albany highlight the win column.

Senior forward Theresa Grace Mbanefo and junior Georgetown transfer Olivia Snyder have paced Cornell, scoring 12.2 and 11 points per game, respectively. The one thing missing for Cornell has been the consistency of Mulroy.

Averaging just 8.6 points off 32% shooting, Mulroy has cracked double figures just four times on the season, most notably scoring 23 points in a win over Lafayette just days after her buzzer-beater.

McNicholas and KC Carter, respectively scoring 7.7 and 6.2 points per game, have helped fill the void from Mulroy’s struggles. But in times of struggle, Smith wishes more of the bench.

“I wish the rotation was a little bit deeper,” Smith said. “We still have a lot of really young, very inexperienced players making some similar mistakes they did earlier in the year. We have to eliminate that, but we’ve seen some connections with a few players.

“We had some good games and then we took a step back,” she added. “A couple of disappointing losses in that group, a couple good wins, but I think we’re ready to turn the page and start Ivy play.”

For the Big Red, conference play will start Sunday with a trip to Leede Arena for a matinee game against 1-11 Dartmouth. Tip-off is set for 2 p.m. ET.

“[It’s] just focusing on the key things we scout and playing together,” McNicholas said of the Ivy opener. “Using our defense for offense will be key in conference play.”

NOTE: Theresa Grace Mbanefo was not with the team during Wednesday’s game against Lock Haven for undisclosed reasons.