NEW YORK, N.Y. –– For the second night in a row, the men’s basketball team lived up to the expectations that come with playing on sports’ most hallowed ground –– defeating St. John’s, 71-66, in a dramatic come-from-behind win to clinch the Madison Square Garden Holiday Festival title on Dec. 21. In a game where the Red Storm (12-5, 2-3 Big East) defense managed to limit Cornell top-scorer Ryan Wittman to just 10 points, senior tri-captain Jon Jaques rose to the occasion, notching a career-high 20 points to lead both teams while shooting a scorching 5-for-6 from beyond the arc.
Jaques, who had been seeing less than a minute of playing time off the bench to open the season, has now started the last three contests for the Red (15-3, 1-0 Ivy), and continues to give head coach Steve Donahue reason to send him out onto the court.
“Jon just needed to get his chance to play, and once he got it, I think we all knew that he was capable of doing stuff like that. ... He put the team on his back for awhile tonight,” said fellow tri-captain Jeff Foote, who posted a 19-point, 11-rebound double-double –– his second in a row and fifth of the season –– en route to being named tournament MVP. Foote also had five of Cornell’s seven blocks.
“It’s surreal, I’ve only been MVP once before, and it was in a high school tournament ... to get MVP on this stage is pretty unreal,” Foote said.
In the midst of all the hype that ensues after beating a team that received 53 votes in the Associated Press’ college basketball poll released earlier that day, it was perhaps easy to overlook the significance of Monday’s tournament finale for another Red player. Senior guard Louis Dale dished out five assists in the wining effort to give him 381 for his career, moving him into sole possession of first place for the most in Cornell history.
“When they’re hot, that team [Cornell] can beat any team in the country,” said St. John’s head coach Norm Roberts. “They can win a game in the Tournament easily.”
Jaques kicked off the first half for the Red as he would end it –– with a 3-pointer. However, his team found itself playing catch-up in the early-goings of the contest, that is until Wittman drained his first of only two 3’s to knot the score at 20 with 8:59 to play.
Undoubtedly well-aware of the havoc he had wreaked on Davidson (8-10, 4-2 SoCon) the day before, St. John’s doubled-teamed Wittman throughout, never quite allowing him a good view of the basket. This tactic left Jaques open to bring the heat from downtown –– an opportunity he readily took advantage of, shooting 3-for-3 in the opening frame to lead Cornell with nine points.
“They capitalized on every open look,” said junior guard D.J. Kennedy, who was second on his team in scoring with 15 points.
The Red Storm used a 13-2 run –– highlighted by three treys from junior guard Dwight Hardy –– over the next three minutes to secure its largest lead of the game at 11. The Red would cut the deficit to five thanks largely to Foote’s offensive and defensive contributions. The senior center sunk two free throws and blocked consecutive shots by junior guard Paris Horne before Jaques netted his third 3 of the half to send Cornell into the locker room down 36-31.
Both teams were evenly matched in terms of percentages for the first half, with Cornell holding a slight advantage in field goal percentage –– 50.0 to 46.7. As far as 3-point percentages, the Red and Red Storm each made 7-of-11.
“Our game plan was to force them to shoot the ball from distance ... [that] strategy didn’t look too smart in the first half,” Donahue said. “They shot the heck out of the ball.”
Most of Cornell’s games this season have seen the Red cruise to a comfortable double-digit halftime lead, only to surrender the advantage in the second stanza. This time around, the team was forced to play from behind, which it successfully managed through a strong second half defensive effort that held St. John’s to just 4-of-14 from beyond the arc and 37.0 percent overall.
“They were knocking them down tonight, so we had to adjust and get out and make sure we challenged their shot,” Dale said.
“We knew if we stayed tough defensively, they weren’t going to knock down those 75 percent from 3 all night,” Foote added. “We really focused in in the second half and got after it, and went after the boards and the blocks.”
Foote set the tone early with a dunk and was fouled in the process. Although he failed to convert the 3-point play, a heads-up tap by Wittman led to a layup from senior forward Mark Coury. Coury, who finished with six points on the night, would bring the Red within one, 47-46, moments later on a pass from junior forward Adam Wire. Although the Kentucky transfer was the only Red player to score off the bench, Donahue maintained that the box score doesn’t always tell the whole story.
“If you look at Adam Wire’s box score, it’s [basically] all zeroes ... but he was a great defender today,” Donahue said.
Cornell took the lead for the first time since 10:42 in the opening frame on a Foote 3-point play, followed by a Wittman 3 to cap off a 13-2 run. St. John’s would pull even at 60 on a second-chance trey by Hardy, who led his team with 19 points. However, the tie did not last long, as Foote held off two Red Storm defenders in the lane to hand the advantage back to Cornell.
St. John’s would threaten again when, with under 20 seconds remaining, the team worked a four-point play: junior guard Malik Boothe converted one of two from the charity stripe, and the rebound off the miss ended up in Hardy’s possession, who netted his fifth 3-pointer of the night.
It proved too little too late, however, as Wittman –– who, along with Foote, was named to the all-tournament team –– and Jaques both made clutch free throws to give the Red its first tournament victory since the Cornell Invitational in the 1989-90 season. With the win, Cornell also snapped a 40-year, 46-game losing streak against Big East opponents.