Thirteen years ago, Cornell’s cagers made the NCAA tournament for only the second time in program history. That season, Cornell won the Ivies with a convincing 11-3 conference record (17-10 overall). Since, the team has managed only one winning mark in league play and had four or fewer conference wins on six occasions. This year, those losing ways have changed, and though the team’s chances of making a trip to the tourney rest in the hands of fate, the Red can certainly consider this season a success.
Currently in control of second place in the Ancient Eight with a 6-4 mark (11-12 overall), Cornell finds itself in the midst of a record season — something few people outside Newman Arena predicted earlier this winter. Following the departure of its leader and primary offensive threat, Ka’Ron Barnes ’04, critics gave the unproven squad little chance to beat the likes of Princeton, Harvard, Yale, Brown and Penn. With the exception of the Quakers, however, Cornell has proven those cynics wrong.
Highlighting that list were the team’s first win in 20 years against Princeton at Jadwin Gymnasium, a thrilling, 87-82 overtime victory over the Bulldogs at home, and a dominating 77-47 performance against Columbia.
“It’s definitely been a goal of ours to try to beat Penn, Princeton, and Yale since the beginning of the season. We haven’t done that in a while,” said senior captain Eric Taylor. “The win against Princeton was huge.”
“We have a 4-1 record at home and we’ve gone 2-2 in the past two weeks on the road. I’m real pleased with the way the team’s playing,” said head coach Steve Donahue. “When some guys have slipped, some have stepped up. Overall, the team’s playing good basketball.”
In particular, two players — one a rookie, the other a seasoned veteran — have recently provided stellar efforts to boost the team. Freshman Jason Canady, making the first start of his career, led the team in scoring against Dartmouth and then followed that performance up with 15 points against Harvard in last weekend’s road trip. Junior Ryan Rourke had a breakout showing of his own versus the Crimson. The forward unloaded for a game and season-high 27 points — 20 of those came during the second half, when the Red battled back from a deficit to clinch a four-point win.
“My confidence was a little shaky at the beginning of the year. On the court, I was always thinking about what the coaches were saying,” Canady said. “I always knew I had the ability, but this was the first weekend when I said to myself, ‘O.K., just go out and play basketball.'” “We’ve tried to come into this season with a team attitude. We have eight or nine guys who are getting a lot of minutes, sharing time,” Taylor said. “Different guys step up at different games.”
This weekend, when Cornell hosts league leader Penn, and Princeton, the Red will have to count on similar star performances and a strong team effort to keep its momentum and championship hopes alive. According to sophomore Graham Dow, who is questionable for the home stand because of a hip flexor injury, achieving that kind of balance has plagued the team all year.
“The team is playing well, but we’re a little inconsistent at times,” he said. “We’re trying to turn around this program, but against Dartmouth, we didn’t bring our game.”
The Red considers Friday night’s contest against the Quakers one barometer of just how far the program has come, and just how far it still must go in order to earn a tournament berth. “It’s premature to say that we are challenging for a championship right now because there’s a long way to go. We’re not done yet,” Donahue said.
But, he added, “Penn is the best team in the league. This weekend gives us the opportunity to put our program among the top. We have to take care of business.”
Taking care of business and contending for a league championship is what Canady came here to do.
“I wanted to help build a program. I could see that coach Donahue was doing things to get it done,” he said. “I knew I could help. We’re on the upswing right now.”
Taylor and fellow senior Cody Toppert also came to East Hill to accomplish similar goals and this weekend put both one step closer to accomplishing them.
“We’ve put in a lot of hard work over the past four years, always with the goal of winning the Ivy championships,” Taylor said. “We’re real excited about the possibility of seeing that work pay off in our last home weekend. Obviously, if we win, we’ll still need a little help from Penn to do that, but we would still have a chance to win the league and make it to the tournament. But beating Penn would be the final notch in our belt.”
Archived article by Everett Hullverson
Sun Assistant Sports Editor