SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Victory was not a realistic option here for head coach Steve Donahue and his men’s basketball team last Monday night; against Notre Dame, Cornell would have to settle for silver linings.
And though the 78-48 score line showed a Cornell that was clearly outmanned and outmatched against a Fighting Irish squad that wasn’t even at full strength, the Red displayed enough sparks of talent to make its trip to America’s heartland worthwhile.
“We’re so young,” said Donahue of a team that lists six freshmen on its roster. “We’re just trying to find out who we are.”
In the losing effort, two of Donahue’s rookies — Cody Toppert (16 points and four rebounds) and Chris Vandenberg (eight points and seven rebounds) validated his belief that in good time, Cornell will be a contender for an Ivy League championship.
“There’s two kids that are the foundation of what I’m trying to do at Cornell,” he praised. “I’m pleased with their effort.”
“I’m very impressed with Vandenberg,” Brey added. “He’s a very good big kid for the Ivy League,” sounded off Notre Dame second-year coach Mike Brey, admitting that his team had trouble at times guarding Cornell’s half-court offense. “That’s going to be a really good Ivy League team as they get comfortable with Steve’s system.”
Coming off a 65-48 loss at Canisius in its opener, the Red kept nipping at the Irish’s heels during the early part of the first half. With 7:45 elapsed, Cornell even took its only lead of the game at 11-9 on a three-pointer by freshmen A.J. Castro.
It was then that Brey opted for a zone defense that tightened the reins on Cornell’s penetration opportunities.
“I thought there were times [in the first half] when we were getting the rhythm, and then Mike went right to zone,” Donahue described. “We didn’t do well against the zone. We didn’t feel comfortable against it.
“They took our looks away pretty quickly.”
Notre Dame’s crafty defensive scheme opened the way for its offense which proceeded to unveil a 15-0 run minutes before halftime, giving the Irish an untouchable 39-21 edge entering the break.
“We really were having a difficult time chasing them around,” Brey admitted, rationalizing his decision to switch to a zone. “We ended up staying in it, and it worked pretty good.”
“I think we lost our poise, there’s no question,” Donahue said. “My concern is that we learn from that, and we get better each game.”
On the other end of the floor, the Irish — though missing one of their top forwards, Ryan Humphrey, due to suspension — toyed with Cornell’s defense and used their size to extend the advantage.
Leading the way was freshmen Chris Thomas, who was Indiana’s Mr. Basketball a year ago. Having already earned the first triple double in school history against New Hampshire in Notre Dame’s first game, Thomas added 22, six rebounds and six assists against the Red. Most of the damage, though, came from beyond the arc, where he was 6 for 7.
“It just happened to be there,” Thomas said about the three-point shot. “Guys were running at [Matt Carroll] and [David Graves], and I was just wide open.
“Thomas is absolutely fantastic right now,” Donahue lauded, adding praise on his backcourt mates Carroll and Graves. “I was just really impressed with the three perimeter guys. They have as good perimeter players as your going to see in the country.”
Carroll and Graves had 13 and 10 points, respectively. Also chipping 16 points was Jere Macura.
The Red didn’t help its own cause by turning over the ball 22 times, which led to 17 Irish points. Cornell opened the second half with a spate of turnovers, including two by veteran forward Jake Rohe.
“For whatever reason, Jake struggled tonight with the basketball.” Donahue said. “We had a couple of possessions [at the beginning of the second half] where things could have gone our way, and then we turned the ball over.”
Notre Dame made sure to capitalize, extending its lead to 55-25, capped by a three-pointer by Thomas from the top of the key.
Despite the lopsided loss, Donahue took care not to dwell on the cons. Obviously cognizant that his undersized team faced an uphill battle in South Bend, he highlighted stats that Cornell could tote back to Ithaca with pride.
“We had 18 field goals, 14 were assisted on. That’s a great ratio for us,” he said, adding, “We got beat on the boards, but not that bad [41-35], and we’re extremely small.”
Also positive for the team was the play of Toppert, who is averaging 20 points a game this season. He proved himself to be a three-point threat, shooting 4 for 5 against the Irish.
Starting sophomore guard Ka’Ron Barnes — Ivy League Rookie of the Year last season — contributed eight points and six assists.
With games against Syracuse and Georgia Tech left on its schedule, the Red will have plenty more chances to test the non-conference waters.
“This is a different experience for most of our guys, playing against this size and athleticism. You hope you do enough of these, so that by the time three or four of these roll around, that we’re used to this,” Donahue said.
“I don’t feel good about the loss, but I’m not discouraged about where I believe we’ll be in a month or two.”
Archived article by Shiva Nagaraj