After completing a difficult non-conference winter break schedule that featured top Division I teams like Duke, Vanderbilt and Bucknell, the Red returns to Ithaca to begin Ivy play against Columbia on Saturday.
The Red (8-9, 0-0 Ivy League) began the break with a trip down South to take on ACC and SEC powerhouses Duke and Vanderbilt. After trailing to the Commodores by 19 in the first half, the Red fought back and came within two points with just under ten minutes remaining. But Vanderbilt was able to make a late run and came away with a 66-55 victory. In its second straight nationally televised matchup, the Red fell to No. 1 Duke after giving the Blue Devils a scare in the first half. According to senior guard Johnathan Gray, the tough competition the team saw over break has given Cornell an advantage moving into conference play.
“Any time you play teams that pay attention to details, it makes things that much tougher,” he said. “Playing against teams that really take a big focus on defense, we have to understand that our offensive execution has to be a little bit better.”
“[Those games] prepared us for how intensely we’ll have to play defense and how hard we’ll have to play as a team to be successful,” said senior forward Eitan Chemerinski.
The Red is coming off two straight wins against American and Old Westbury and can get back to the .500 mark with a victory over Columbia this weekend. The teams split the two meetings last year, with the Red falling 61-56 on the Lions home turf.
“We went in to Columbia [last year] a little bit lazy and caught a loss,” Gray said. “We didn’t rebound particularly well and [senior center Mark] Cisco had a tremendous day.”
Though the Red never trailed by more than 10 throughout the game, it was also never able to take a lead. The squad was outrebounded 32-21 with Cisco leading the way with 20 points and 14 rebounds — six of them offensive. The 6’ 9” senior is averaging nine points and six boards per game.
This year, with its biggest strength in the open court, the Red will try to use its speed to catch the Lions off guard.
“They’re going to try to play physical and they don’t want to play an up-tempo game,” Gray said. “If we are able to limit their offensive rebounds we should have a great chance to win.”
“If we stick to our defensive principles and try to speed them up again we can get them out of their rhythm,” Chemerinski added.
Though the Red has had some slow offensive games early on, it is coming off its biggest scoring outburst of the season against Old Westbury. The Red put up 103 points on the Panthers, just the second time in the past 20 years the team has hit triple digits on the scoreboard. Gray led the way with 24 points on 6 of 11 shooting from beyond the arc and grabbed seven boards. It was his second straight game leading the team in scoring after being relatively quiet on offense to start the season.
“Any time you play well it gives you added confidence,” Gray said of the last two games. “I’ve been thinking too much instead of going out and playing. Now, if I get a shot I’m taking it. I’m trying to get myself into a little rhythm and letting things come to me.”
An additional weapon the Red will have against Columbia on Saturday is senior Errick Peck, who missed last season due to an injury. Though he was out for two games over the break, the 6’6” forward put up the type of big numbers his coach expects, scoring 16 points and corralling seven rebounds.
“He’s been tremendous for us,” said head coach Bill Courtney. “He had to get back in shape, knock the rust out of his game, but what we’ve seen is his emergence back to the player we’d hoped he would be.”
The game against Columbia is the Red’s first Ivy League home game before going on a three game road trip.
“Winning at home is going to be big,” Courtney said. “[Being able] to establish some dominance and confidence at home is extremely important.”