NEW YORK, N.Y. –– Ryan Wittman made certain that his first visit to Madison Square Garden was one to remember. The senior forward hit a 35-foot buzzer-beating 3-pointer in overtime to propel Cornell to a thrilling 91-88 win over Davidson (3-8), and secure the Red (8-2) a berth in the championship game of the MSG Holiday Festival, to be played Monday at 9 p.m. against St. John’s.
“I didn’t really think about how big it was. When I caught the ball I kind of looked at the clock to see how much time I had left. I had a couple dribbles, and then just ... shot it,” Wittman said.
He was promptly mobbed by his teammates on-court after the fact.
Wittman finished the day with 29 points –– four shy of his career-high –– but his late-game heroics would have proved a non-story had it not been for senior guard Louis Dale’s clutch layup with .7 seconds remaining in regulation. Dale, who dished out seven assists, had been held scoreless up until this point and carried his hot shooting into the overtime period, contributing seven additional points. Senior center Jeff Foote picked up his fourth double-double of the season, notching 16 points and 14 boards.
Sophomore guard Chris Wroblewski got things started for the Red with his first of three treys on the day, though both teams were evenly matched in the opening minutes –– that is until senior guard Geoff Reeves drilled a jumper to hand Cornell a lead it would not relinquish until 8:53 in the second half.
Three consecutive field goals from freshman forward Errick Peck off the bench pushed the team’s advantage to eight, and senior tri-captain/forward Jon Jaques and Wittman did their part to maintain the constant pressure with a pair of 3’s, putting Cornell up 23-9.
With 9:18 to play, senior tri-captain/forward Alex Tyler, who has been nursing a calf injury that kept him out of the previous four games, blocked a shot by freshman guard JP Kuhlman and collided with a couple courtside chairs in a successful attempt to keep the ball in play.
The Red’s lead swelled to as much as 17 on Reeves’ only 3 of the game, and Wittman followed suit with his second of seven shots from downtown. However, a trey from junior guard Brendan McKillop –– son of Davidson head coach Bob McKillop –– with time expiring would close the gap, sending both teams into the locker room with Cornell on top, 44-31.
The Red shot 58.6 percent in the first 20 minutes, and was a blistering 6-for-10 from beyond the arc, while holding the Wildcats to just 37.5 percent shooting and 3-for-12 from 3-point range.
The second half, however, proved a different game for both teams. Davidson managed to reverse its subpar numbers from the opening frame, shooting 58.1 percent from the field and 62.5 percent from downtown in the second. Cornell, on the other hand, was held to 31.4 percent overall, and connected on only 3-of-13 from outside.
“Davidson is a very good offensive basketball team. They got in a really good rhythm,” said head coach Steve Donahue. “[Us having had] two weeks off [from competition] hit us in the second half ... guys started getting tired physically and mentally.”
Wittman echoed this sentiment, “In the first half we had a lot of good defensive energy. We jumped out to a big lead right away. When they started making a run at us in the second half, I think some of the rust showed from not playing for two weeks. We started not getting the stops on defense.”
Indeed, fatigue began to take its toll on some of the Red players in the half, as evidenced by Cornell missing several open shots. Meanwhile, the Davidson offense started to find its groove, as back-to-back 3’s from McKillop and Kuhlman –– who both finished second on the team with 17 points apiece –– cut the Wildcats’ deficit to six. Wittman silenced this mini-run with a trey of his own to put Cornell up, 55-46, and contributed another one less than three minutes later.
It would continue to rain 3’s at The Garden, as a steal by senior forward Steve Rossiter led to a fastbreak trey from McKillop, and then another as freshman forward Nik Cochran again got the ball into McKillop’s hands following a Wroblewski miss. Not to be outdone, Wittman drilled his second 3 in the span of two minutes on a Dale assist to make it 61-55 in favor of the Red. The advantage proved short-lived, however, as Davidson managed to pull even at 8:53 when senior forward Dan Nelms finished on a feed from McKillop. Two and a half minutes later, Cochran gave the Wildcats their first lead of the game at 63-61. Wroblewski –– one of three Red players to finish in double-figures with 14 points –– was fouled and converted on the 3-point play, but Cochran responded to put his team back on top.
“Davidson was hungry; they really executed on the offensive end and really had us back on our heels,” Donahue said.
Wroblewski sunk two more free throws, initiating a string of six straight possessions that featured lead changes. With just over a minute remaining, Kuhlman drained a 3, and a questionable foul on Alex Tyler sent freshman forward Jake Cohen to the line to shoot 1-and-1. He converted the first but missed the second as Foote came up with the rebound, but his outlet pass sailed out of bounds with eight seconds to play.
Cornell was left with no choice but to intentionally foul, and the Red’s gamble paid off as Cohen, who led Davidson with 18 points, missed both shots in the double bonus. Foote once again secured the rebound and found Dale, who went the length of the court, and bounced a layup off the glass with no time left on the clock to knot the score at 75 and pave the way for an equally-tense overtime period.
“We told ourselves before we went out there that we need[ed] to play good defense if we [were] going to win [the] overtime period,” Wittman said. “We’ve been through a lot of situations like this before, like at Bucknell, so we had a lot of confidence in our team coming into overtime.”
The momentum from Dale’s shot transitioned to OT, as he drilled a 3-pointer 30 seconds in and drained a jumper a minute and a half later. Rossiter countered with a layup off an offensive rebound by senior guard Bryant Barr in what would prove a recurring trend in the five-minute period, as Davidson responded to every Cornell score.
“[The overtime period] was another opportunity for us to surrender to adversity,” coach McKillop said. His team did exactly the opposite.
A Wroblewski 3-pointer put the Red ahead, 83-79, but the younger McKillop reciprocated in kind. However, Wittman came through with his 300th career trey, becoming the first player in Ivy League history to reach this landmark. The situation left no time for celebration, however, as McKillop once again cut the deficit to two with 1:04 to play.
Finding themselves in a similar position to the Red late in the second half, the Wildcats intentionally fouled Dale, who connected on both free throw attempts to put his team up, 88-84, with only 28 seconds to play. The lead was by no means safe, as it was Kuhlman’s turn to be clutch, drilling a 3 to make it a one-point game.
Another intentional foul sent Dale back to the line, and in a highly uncharacteristic display, the 84 percent free-throw shooter missed both shots with 15 left on the clock. Kuhlman came up with the rebound, only to have the ball knocked out of his hands by Dale; in the ensuing scramble for the loose ball, Dale was called for a foul, sending Kuhlman to the charity stripe with the game on the line. He made the first to knot things at 88, but missed the second, and Foote was able to grab the rebound and find Jaques with no time to spare. Jaques connected with Wittman, whose SportsCenter-worthy buzzer-beater handed Cornell a 91-88 win for the ages on the world’s biggest stage.
The Red returns to the Madison Square Garden court Monday evening for a rendezvous with the 9-1 St. John’s Red Storm, which downed Hofstra (7-4), 72-60, on Sunday afternoon.
“It’s like an Ivy League weekend,” Donahue said. “One thing I like about this tournament is you don’t get a chance to really celebrate.”