ITHACA, N.Y. — With 12:06 remaining, the Cornell men faced a 68-53 deficit to Yale and seemingly had no answers on the defensive end. The Bulldogs were shooting nearly 69% from the field and were dominating the interior.
But all of a sudden, something clicked for the Big Red. Cornell finished the game on a 41-14 mega-run to defeat the defending league champions 94-82 and move into solo second in the Ivy League.
“We don’t necessarily care being down a lot,” Cornell coach Brian Earl said. “Yale’s a great team. They scored on us a lot, but the waves of us coming and never stopping I felt was good. Our guys hung in there.”
It took a team effort for the Big Red (13-4, 3-1 Ivy) to claw back into the game, but sophomore guard Nazir Williams stepped up when it mattered. He scored 23 of his career-high 27 points in the second half to lead Cornell.
Williams played with a chip on his shoulder. He was held scoreless Saturday against Princeton and knows his production is key to the team’s success.
“I just felt like I owed my team this one,” Williams said. “If I go scoreless, we probably won’t win too many games. Just having that in the back of my mind, I knew I had to be aggressive … it was just bound to happen.”
Williams connected on 11 of his 12 free throws — eight of which were in the final five minutes. The team went 31-for-34 from the charity stripe.
“We’re not the greatest free-throw shooting team right now, but we know if we want to achieve our goals, that’s going to be a big part of it,” Williams said.
Cornell scored 17 unanswered points, starting with 9:30 remaining after junior forward Keller Boothby and freshman guard Josh Baldwin connected on threes. Williams hit a layup and a pair of free throws before sophomore forward Guy Ragland Jr. drilled a three to tie it.
Ragland made a pair of free throws a minute later to give Cornell a lead it never lost.
“That second half, like the last 10 or 11 minutes, was just a big switch,” said Cornell senior guard Greg Dolan, who scored 14 points. “[Williams] and a lot of guys just made great decisions, whether it was drawing a foul, getting a layup, spraying it out for a three — guys were just really composed out there.”
Yale dominated the first 20 minutes of the game, taking a 49-43 halftime lead behind 68% shooting. The Bulldogs easily broke Cornell’s full-court pressure, attacked the inside and found high-quality looks at the basket.
“[Yale] really came after us after the first couple of possessions,” Earl said. “They were aggressive and they got some really good players with vision who can finish down there.
“We just upped our intensity a little bit … we imposed our style a little bit.”
Yale sophomore guard Bez Mbeng scored 21 points off 7-for-7 shooting, but 15 of those points came in the first half. The Big Red wanted to take the ball out of his hands, and Mbeng eventually fouled out with 2:51 remaining.
Sophomore guard John Poulakidas added 12 for Yale with a pair of threes in the first half. Junior forward Matt Knowling added 11.
“We just don’t blink,” Williams said. “Coach tells us ‘be relentless’, so that’s what we’re going to be … it’s easier to keep your foot on the gas pedal when you’re down than when you’re up, so it was just meant for us.”
A proper farewell
Friday was longtime Cornell athletics director Andy Noel’s final day on the job. After 24 years leading Big Red sports, Noel is retiring. Nicki Moore, vice president and director of athletics at Colgate University, will take over for Noel on Jan. 17.
While at Cornell, Noel’s teams won 107 Ivy League titles and 36 individual and national titles. Three of those Ivy titles came from 2008 through 2010 with the men’s basketball team, as well as one with the women’s basketball team in 2008.
Noel hired Earl to take control of the men’s basketball program on April 18, 2016. Earl has guided the team to 70 wins, two Ivy Madness berths and a CIT berth in 2019.
Earl wanted to send Noel off with a win.
“He’s been here forever, and obviously for me, he took a chance and I’m still here a couple of years later,” Earl said. “He’s done a lot for me and has always watched out for us as a program, and hopefully he’s happy. He looked that way, and it’s good to give him a win on the way out.”
Empire State rivalry
Cornell will head down to New York City for a matchup with traditional travel partner Columbia on Monday. In their first three Ivy games, the Lions have a win over Yale and losses to Penn and Princeton.
“They are going to be just as much of a handful,” Dolan said of the Lions. “We know what they can do, and playing any Ivy team on the road is going to be a battle. We just got to get these guys prepared and go from there.”
Monday will start a stretch of four of the next five games away from Newman Arena. Cornell travels to Harvard afterward, hosts Brown then hits the road for Princeton and Penn in a back-to-back.
“They are all difficult. We don’t really look too far ahead,” Earl said. “You got to play hard wherever you are and our guys hopefully know that, and we’ll see what we’re made of.”
Monday’s game against Columbia tips at 12 p.m. ET on ESPN+ and SNY.