After coming up short in two excruciatingly close games against Penn and Princeton this past weekend, all opportunities for the Cornell men’s basketball team to secure a position in the inaugural Ivy League tournament have vanished.
Cornell (7-20, 3-8 Ivy) lost 69-66 in the final minute against Penn (12-13, 5-7) on Friday night, and faded in the second half to fall 75-60 on Saturday’s senior night to Princeton (19-6, 12-0). The Red struggled down the stretch to score the points and maintain closing energy necessary to topple its opponents in both Ivy matchups.
As expected, Penn’s talented freshmen tandem — guard Ryan Betley and forward A.J. Brodeur — combined for 34 points to lead the Quaker attack against the Red. Betley notched 21 points, five steals and five rebounds in the winning effort.
Although the Red clawed its way back from a hefty 12-point halftime deficit to temporarily lead 63-59 with 3:05 left on the game clock, Brodeur drilled a critical jumper with over 30 seconds remaining to give Penn the edge as time wound down.
Following Brodeur’s clutch make, which created a four point difference between the two teams, Cornell junior guard Will Bathurst responded with a 3-point bucket to inch Cornell within one point.
Then, down by three after a pair of Penn free throws, sophomore guard Matt Morgan caught an inbound pass — having already scored a game-high 26 points — and tossed up the Red’s final 3-point attempt of the game. As Morgan’s shot failed to connect, the Quakers snuck away from Newman with a tight 69-66 win.
After Friday night’s shootout against the Quakers, the Red eagerly arrived at Newman Arena, ready for senior night festivities and prepared to take on the Tigers and their perfect 11-0 conference record.
Moving the ball efficiently and scoring points early in the game, Cornell jumped out to a 23-13 lead with 10:04 left in the first half — the largest lead it would hold all night. With Red sophomore forward Stone Gettings battling to control Princeton’s points in the paint, the team’s defensive efforts limiting Princeton’s field goal shooting to 41.9 percent, and 38.9 percent from beyond the arc, the Red fought courageously against the Tigers and went into its locker room down just 35-34 at the half.
However, the more experienced and resilient core of Tiger players returned to the court following the break and came alive by way of sophomore guard Devin Cannady’s smooth three-point shooting.
Cannady was consistent from the field and was a threat from beyond the arc, making 6 of 10 attempts on the night and hitting nine of 15 field goals.
“The guy just makes shots,” head coach Brian Earl said of the talented Cannady. “I know firsthand spending a year with him that he’s special, and you can’t lose him at all. He’s not a guy who thinks twice about [shooting], and so when he springs loose you’re in a lot of trouble … and we were in a lot of trouble when he got loose tonight.”
Earl added that when former colleague and Tiger head coach Mitch Henderson switched the Tiger’s personnel to include its more versatile and smaller-sized lineup, the Red encountered severe problems.
“They went to that smaller lineup which caused a lot of confusion for us defensively,” Earl said.
While Princeton continued to drain shots in the second half as easily as it had done in the first, the Red found itself unable to put points on the board as its shooting percentage fell from 58.3 percent down to 45 percent on field goals, and from 44.4 to 37.5 from beyond the arc between the first and second halves.
Cornell competed with Princeton until around the 3:15 mark of the game when the team started to sink into a deficit. As Morgan and senior guard Robert Hatter attempted to take the ball up the court, both were hammered with pressure from the Tiger defense. Specifically, senior forward Spencer Weisz — who led the Tiger defense with four steals — contributed to giving the Red offense plenty of headaches.
On Cornell’s sideline, even though Earl attempted to coach Morgan and Hatter in-game regarding tempo and sets to run down the final stretch of the game, the Tigers’ collective defensive effort ultimately proved too strong for the Red.
“I wanted them to understand how we were being guarded a little better,” Earl said about Hatter and Morgan in the game’s final three minutes.
With a little over a minute left in the contest, Earl substituted his three active seniors out of the game and Newman Nation rose to its feet, giving the graduating seniors a final standing ovation for the commitment and time they have contributed to the team over the past four years. Seniors Hatter, Desmond Fleming and Jojo Fallas proudly checked out of the game and walked off the Newman court for their final time.
After the game, Earl reflected on what it was like having his four graduating seniors for a couple of years during their careers at Cornell.
“It’s difficult when there’s transition on anyone who’s involved … particularly for college kids who are 22 and have been coached in a way for three years,” he said. “It speaks volumes with them sticking with everything we’re trying to do here, and obviously it hasn’t produced results yet, but there’s a lot to be said for putting your head down, doing the work and sticking with a program.”
Through what ended up being an agonizing and tension-filled weekend for the Red at Newman — losing both games and failing to break either Penn or Princeton’s win streaks — Hatter shed light on the positive aspects of the seniors final game at Newman.
“I’m speechless,” he said humbly. “I love Cornell so much, and I appreciate everybody that supported myself and my other seniors, and it just felt amazing to see everyone appreciate us.”
The Red hits the road next weekend as it closes out its final games of the 2016-17 season against Yale and Brown.