Turns out Columbia is not a one-man team. Despite a sub-par performance from their star player, the Lions rolled to a 54-42 victory over Cornell in front of 2,000 raucous fans at Newman Arena. The Red held reining Ivy League Player of the Year Craig Austin to seven points, but could not present any offensive threats of its own — eventually succumbing to Columbia’s stifling defense.
“They can shoot 37% and win the game. That’s our same old story, we can’t score,” head coach Steve Donahue lamented, “[Columbia] is the best team in the league in terms of defense because of the way they play. They believe ‘we’re going to take time on every possession and we’re going to have great floor balance so we don’t give away any open looks’. They’ve been the best defensive team in our league for a few of years now.”
The Lions successfully prevented Cornell from running its offense. They out-rebounded the Red 31-26, blocked eight shots, and held sharp-shooter Jacques Vigneault to one shot.
As has been the case throughout the season, the Red fell behind early in the game as Columbia jumped out to a 21-8 lead on the strength of four three-pointers. Donahue’s team maintained its intensity, however, and reeled off 13 straight points to tie the game.
The Red then turned the ball over on three straight possessions before junior co-captain Wallace Prather recorded his third steal of the night and raced down the court for an easy layup. Vigneault hit two free throws at the end of the half to give his team its first lead of the evening, 25-23.
The beginning of the second half saw the Red offense as flat as it has been all season, failing to muster a point for nine and a half minutes. By that time, Columbia had taken a commanding 39-25 lead.
“I wish I had an answer for why we come out flat like that,” Donahue said. “[Columbia] starts out well, they shoot the ball, are aggressive on the offensive end and attack on defense. They make a couple of shots and that hurts us mentally.
“We don’t get rebounds, we don’t push the ball, we’re very stagnant, we’re very non-aggressive, and we don’t get the ball to the inside. I tried to call a couple of timeouts to get it back, but for whatever reason, we did not do that.”
Freshman Cody Toppert finally gave the home crowd something to cheer about as he converted a three-point play. After trading baskets for the next five minutes, two Prather free throws cut the lead to eight, 49-41, with 3:00 left on the clock. On the next two possessions, neither team could convert a basket.
With one minute left, Cornell set up a three-pointer for Prather. The guard missed the shot, and the Red could get no closer.
“We waited way too long to be aggressive,” Donahue explained, “Even in the first half, when we were down, we were being aggressive the whole time. They were making shots with guys who normally don’t.
“My whole week of preparation was to try to take Austin and Duerksen out of the picture and we did that successfully, but Mayo and Case hurt us. They’re just real physical, and for our group, it wears us down.”
Prather led the Red with 14 points and five rebounds. Center Chris Weidmann recorded eight rebounds for the Lions while guard Derrick Mayo scored 14 points. Fellow guard Alex Sarlin scored four on top of five assists.
Cornell next plays perennial league-leaders Penn and Princeton. It hopes to use the lessons learned from Saturday’s game to remain competitive over the brutal road trip.
“College basketball is all about experience and toughness, mental and physical,” Donahue reflected, “I think there are guys on this basketball team that can be physically and mentally tough. We have to learn from all of this. As we grow and come together, one day this team is going to be that veteran team that goes in and knows how to handle stuff and take care of younger teams. But that does not help us now and we’re not going to look at that as an excuse over these next 10 games.”
In an example of a strange trend that has been gaining national attention, Columbia’s head coach Armond Hill was caught in an altercation with a member of the Cornell pep band at the end of the first half. According to junior manager Chris Parkin, coach Hill called pep band member Chad Potocky a “faggot” in response to the heckling Hill had been receiving for arguing with the referees.
According to Parkin, “[Hill] came over to [Potocky] who was sort of on his own at that point saying, ‘Sit down — whatever’