Incredible. Simply incredible.
Displaying the kind of heart that could make a grown man cry, the Cornell men’s basketball team accomplished the unthinkable — upsetting Princeton for the first time in 15 tries, 66–49.
“You don’t know how good this feels,” senior tri–captain Ray Mercedes smiled.
And give first–year head coach Steve Donahue credit — in one weekend he turned around a squad that had trouble scoring, let alone winning. In one weekend, he brought back a team from the frustrating bowels of defeat to the pinnacle of victory — victory over one of the top teams in the Ivies.
“We played with passion. [Mercedes] was not to be stopped. It was great to watch, a great team effort,” Donahue said. “We made all right decisions. Our focus was right there for the whole game.”
Continuing an aggressive defense that had characterized its game with Penn, Cornell jumped out to an early lead as senior tri–captain Kevin Cuttica quickly found the touch from the outside.
“I felt good in warmups, and in their zone, if you move, you can find openings,” Cuttica explained. “That’s what I was feeling, and guys were finding me. I made some shots and it felt good, it definitely felt good.
Riding Cuttica’s 13 points, the Red opened the game with a 22–20 lead. Maintaining an aggressive defense, Cornell forced steals on back–to–back possessions and junior Luke Vernon capitalized with a reverse layup giving his team a 29–20 lead. Princeton closed the half with a three–point basket, but the momentum was clearly with the Red. It had forced six turnovers while only giving up one, and shooting an impressive 50-percent from the field.
“We just couldn’t let the game slip away like it did last night, so we were pretty confident going into halftime,” Mercedes said. “The score at halftime just gave us more confidence.”
“At halftime I thought this was a game we were going to win,” confided Donahue. “I also thought they were going to make a run, I thought we could answer it . . I wanted to be the aggressor the whole game.”
Cornell maintained that aggression early in the second half as Mercedes and junior Wallace Prather picked up steals. The Red then reeled off nine straight points in six minutes to establish a 38–23 lead. Princeton went on a run of its own, scoring five straight points and cutting the lead to 10. However, that would be as close as they would ever get. With senior Greg Barratt banging for offensive rebounds and freshman Ka’Ron Barnes nailing key free throws down the stretch, the Red never looked back.
Cornell finished shooting 46.8-percent from the field, and more importantly, 16 for 19 on free–throw shooting, 15 of 18 coming in the second half. Mercedes, Prather, Cuttica, and Barnes all finished with double–digit points while Mercedes and Barratt combined for 17 rebounds.
But the key to the win was the intensity with which this team played. There were images of Jake Rohe twice diving into the stands to keep the ball in play, Ray Mercedes outhustling Princeton for rebounds and steals, Wallace Prather juking his defenders into no-man’s land, and Barnes calmly stroking free–throws to clinch the game.
“This is just an amazing feeling – I haven’t felt this good about basketball in a long time,” Cuttica extolled. “I think our preparation for this whole weekend was great, and that’s a good sign for this team – we struggled all year, last year we kind of threw the towel in, but this year, under Donahue, we’re still fighting. We didn’t back down after that loss [against Penn], and we came back, played as hard as we could and it paid off.”
Donahue let the praise fall on the battle-scared squad: “I’m proud of the kids, Kevin Cuttica and Ray Mercedes, after what they’ve been through. In four years, they’ve been through a lot.” Adding, “Both of those kids played hard, and did everything they could to help Cornell win. I feel real happy for those guys. I love that they’re getting the feeling of beating Princeton on their home field.
“This will be a stepping stone for the coming years.”
Archived article by Sumeet Sarin