It was an ironic and yet somehow fittingly symbolic sign of what had just taken place in Newman Arena. Just seconds after Harvard (19-5, 10-1 Ivy) had defeated the women’s basketball team 77-75 in double overtime, the Crimson’s Hana Peljto lay motionless at midcourt and a once hectic crowd fell silent. The women from Cambridge had just defeated the Red (14-11, 8-4) and gained sole possession of first place in the Ivy league, but their victory had not come easily.
It was heralded as the most important game in the Red’s history, and the players responded with one of the finest efforts Cornell athletics has ever witnessed. Senior tri-captains Do Stevens — who ended with 14 points and nine rebounds and Breean Walas — who had a career best 28 points and 13 boards — played games that embodied everything that has made them two of the best athletes the program has ever produced.
However, in a game full of superlatives, the greatest attribute was disappointment.
With a win on Friday and subsequent wins in its final four games, the Red would’ve assured itself at least a share of its first ever Ivy league crown.
The game started in the normal fashion for Cornell as the lady cagers held the advantage at halftime behind solid outside shooting and aggressive play at both ends of the floor.
After trading baskets for most of the contest and leading but one time, the Red took its second lead of the first half with 23 seconds left off a Walas free throw.
The first half was characterized by a physical chess match under the boards and consistent 3-point shooting by the Red which kept things close.
Heading into the game, the Red knew that it was going to be outmatched physically and compensated for Harvard’s size — including eight players over six feet in height — by getting position under the boards on each shot.
Junior forward Lynell Davis was particularly adept at getting position on Harvard’s low-post trees, grabbing five rebounds in the opening frame and 10 for the game.
“We were clearly outmatched on the inside,” said head coach Marnie Dacko, “so we tried different things under the boards to offset their size.”
Walas keyed the Red’s offense in the first half, connecting on three of six attempts from behind the arc.
The second half was not so kind to the Red, as Harvard muscled its way to a 23-7 run in the middle-third of the second half, garnering a 55-41 lead with 9:26 left in regulation.
The Red tried to respond, but its defensive stand would gain little ground, as missed opportunities saw Harvard take a seemingly commanding 12-point lead with 2:55 left.
“We knew it was now or never [at that point],” said Breean Walas who was nothing short of heroic in the game’s crucial stretches, “so Do and I just looked at each other in the huddle and said ‘It’s time’.”
Rallying around their senior leaders’ call to arms, the Red mounted an inspired comeback that sent the Newman crowd of nearly 1,700 into a frenzy worthy of a Cornell/Harvard match-up in neighboring Lynah Rink.
As the stands became saturated with Red shirts, signs, and screaming faithful, the tide on the court seemed to mirror the electricity in the bleachers.
At 2:37, Walas hit a shot to bring the deficit to 10, and then snuck around the retreating defenders, to snag a Jennifer Mont inbounds pass. A circus performance later, the Red catalyst had sunk a lay-up and brought her team within eight points.
On the ensuing Harvard possession, Cornell junior forward Ify Ossai knocked a pass aside and sent the baIGHTpcourt to a streaking Breean Walas. Walas then slowed the play down and sent the ball around the Cornell perimeter only to receive the ball back and get fouled on a wild 3-point attempt.
As the crowd fell to a heart-stopping hush, with only the feeble cries of Harvard’s visiting track squad breaking the silence, Walas calmly drained all three of her free throw attempts to put the Red within striking range.
The next time down the court, after a Harvard miss, Stevens sent up a shot from 3-point range that seemed straight out of a casual game of HORSE. However, this seemed to be the Red’s night and Steven’s wild attempt fell through the net, as Cornell fans threw themselves into a frenzy.
Two made free throws by Ossai with 51 seconds left and a missed Walas lay-up at the buzzer resulted in the Red’s second trip to overtime play this season.
In the first overtime, the Red led only once but had a good chance in the period’s final moments. After Harvard inched ahead 69-66 off made free throws, the Red mounted yet another nail biting comeback.
Lynell Davis dropped in a lay-up at 1:15 to draw the Red within a single basket and then it became sophomore tri-captain Karen Force’s turn to shine. With just three seconds left in the overtime, Force drew a foul while penetrating for the winning basket and was sent to the line for an opportunity reminiscent of a melodramatic sports film from the 80’s.
As the echoing sound was once again sucked from the gym’s rafters, Force stepped to the line and made one of two attempts.
She then sprinted back to the other side of the court to snag the Crimson’s hail mary pass, and raced down court only to fail in her attempt to draw a foul on a desperation lay-up. As the refs conferred and then decided that Force had not released the shot before the horn had sounded, both teams realized they were headed into yet another extra frame.
“We had our chances at the very end [of regulation and the overtime periods],” lamented Dacko, “but for some reason those shots just wouldn’t fall for us tonight.”
The second overtime was simply a war of attrition as Cornell’s seven player rotation was outlasted by Harvard’s nine-player shifts.
The Crimson’s Reka Cserny dominated the game’s final five minutes, scoring seven of Harvard’s eight points in the second overtime. Cserny, last year’s Ivy league Rookie of the Year at 21 years of age, got her points with little opposition matched up against Ossai who was giving up five inches to her international counterpart. Cserny ended the game with 28 points.
However, the scrappy Cornell team would not back down as highlight reel shots by Walas and Stevens kept the Red close.
Close enough that after a missed free throw by Pejlto, the Red had one more shot at a fairy tale ending.
With five ticks left on the clock, an emotionally weary crowd rose once more to its collective feet to watch Stevens corral the rebound and sprint downcourt.
Most expected the Red’s leading scorer to spot up at the three point line and go for it all. But instead, Stevens collected herself and penetrated the lane to find a wide open Ossai under the basket with a single second left in the now infamous battle. But this was no fairy tale and Cinderella’s foot was just a little too wide for the slipper, as Ossai’s lay-up fell short along with Cornell’s dreams of royalty.
“We gave it everything we had and really relaxed behind the strength of the crowd…we just fell short at the end,” concluded a distraught Walas after the game.
Although the Red fell short, it did anything but leave the crowd feeling let down. As Pejlto fell to the floor after a week’s bout with the flu, and Harvard’s fans rushed the floor, all those present rose to their feet to give the heroic effort of the lady cagers its due.
When asked about the packed house the game drew and its obvious enthusiasm for the Red’s effort to go from worst to first in the Ivy league in just three years, Dacko and Walas both p
rovided terse yet telling responses.
“Truly tremendous.” said Dacko.
“A dream come true.” echoed Walas.
Although the ultimate dream was denied the women’s basketball on Friday night, there are few people at the game who will forget that night.
“It says something about this team and this program,” said Dacko of the attention the game received. “We gained respect tonight from a lot of people and my heart goes out to both our players and the fans who were pulling for them.”
Archived article by Scott Jones