According to Cornell head coach Steve Donahue, Saturday night’s contest against Princeton was one of the worst beginnings to a basketball game he has seen at Cornell. But the game ended in dramatic fashion with the Red coming back from a nine-point halftime deficit to beat the Tigers, 52-49, at Newman Arena. Cornell completed its first season sweep of Princeton in 20 years with the win and improved to 12-13 overall (7-5 Ivy), while Princeton fell to 13-12 (4-7 Ivy).
Cornell’s two playing seniors, Cody Toppert and Eric Taylor, finished their last career home game with two stellar performances. In front of a packed house and a national television audience on the YES Network, Toppert set Cornell’s all-time 3-point record with 234 baskets outside the arc in his career and led the team with 15 points. Taylor made five crucial free throws and finished with seven total points. The third senior on the Red’s roster, Chris Vandenberg, called the victory on WTKO-AM alongside Barry Leonard.
“I talk to the seniors constantly,” Donahue said. “For them to go out with a packed house on national television — it goes back to all the times when they played here and lost with no one in the stands. This is a game where the seniors can go out on and say, ‘This is why I came here to play Cornell basketball.'”
Freshman Jason Canady and junior Lenny Collins also scored double figures for Cornell. Canady notched 11 points, and Collins had 10. The team as a whole shot only 33 percent from the field, including 20-of-22 from the line.
By comparison, Princeton shot slightly better (41 percent) but made only seven-of-eight foul shots. Luke Owings led the team with a game-high 16 points, but he was the only player in orange and black to break into double figures. He was followed by Scott Greenman, who scored eight points, and also recorded four turnovers and no assists.
Though a pre-game presentation honoring the Red’s seniors went off without a hitch, Cornell and Princeton began the game with sloppy play. For the Red in particular, nothing seemed to go right. Princeton took an early 12-2 lead on 10-0 run, while Cornell’s only additional point came midway through the half off a free throw by Taylor.
The Tigers fared only slightly better, and it took until the first half’s final four minutes for both teams to score double digits. Though action picked up in the waning moments, the teams entered the locker room with a low score of 27-18.
The second half started with a noticeably different tenor. Canady made two foul shots and Toppert drained his second three-pointer of the game to bring Cornell within four, 23-27. On the Red’s next possession, Toppert sunk another trey to make it a one-point contest.
“When I hit that first one, as far as being a street player, you know, when things feel good, they really feel good,” Toppert said. “The basket looks really big. Coach called a few plays for me, and my teammates got me the ball in really good position. From there, it’s just a matter of putting them up. When they’re dropping, they’re dropping, and it feels great.”
In a fashion similar to the Red’s comeback win against the Tigers earlier this season, Cornell slowly chipped away at Princeton until finally taking the lead. Following sophomore Andew Naeve’s game-tying pair of free throws, Toppert again hit the mark from three-point range and put the Red up, 39-36.
Though it had given up what at one point was an 11-point lead, Princeton battled for control until the final buzzer. With four minutes left, Judson Wallace knotted the contest at 44 apiece. By the two-minute mark, Cornell held on to a slim 50-49 advantage, and the crowd began its animated support of the home team.
Chants of “defense” and “let’s go Red” filled Newman Arena, while feet and hearts pumped, and Cornell’s cagers did not disappoint.
After calling its final timeout, Princeton had control of the ball with game on the line. On the inbounds pass, Wallace took control of the ball, but Naeve stood tall under the hoop, and disrupted Wallace’s layup attempt just enough to keep the ball out. Red junior Ryan Rourke was fouled in the scrum, and made both of his foul shots to put the Red up, 52-49. “I’d say the basketball gods were with us,” Taylor said. “[Wallace] missed a layup, but sometimes you need a little luck.”
With four seconds to play, Wallace passed from beyond half court, but Naeve picked off the ball, and Cornell held on for the victory.
Princeton head coach Joe Scott felt that the last-chance miss by Wallace had little to do with the outcome.
“I saw it coming the whole way,” he said. “There was no pizzazz. I knew on their home court, boy oh boy, we’re gonna be in trouble eventually, and we were. They found a way to put themselves in a position, and they won the game.”
For all the players on Cornell’s team — especially Taylor, Toppert, and Vandenberg — the win marked the culmination of a long and often daunting journey.
“It’s definitely an incredible way to finish out a season and a career,” Taylor said. “Short of any Ivy League title, this is about as good as it gets.”
Archived article by Everett Hullverson
Sun Assistant Sports Editor