Cornell hosts Bucknell tonight, closing out its non-conference schedule against the 7-8 Bison. A Patriot League opponent, Bucknell has lost two straight to fall below .500, and has struggled to a sluggish 1-2 start in league play. Meanwhile, 2003 has rejuvenated the Red, which has won three of its last five games to improve to 5-8, including last Saturday’s 51-38 victory over Columbia in its Ivy League opener.
Though Bucknell has faltered of late, the Bison are a perfect 2-0 against opponents that Cornell has also played. The Lewisburg, Pa. school defeated Columbia 61-47 in late November and St. Francis (Pa.) 57-54 in early December. The Red stumbled against the Red Flash 64-61 in its last game of 2002.
The Bison are led by one of the Patriot League’s premier players, senior forward/center Boakai Lalugba. He has already amassed eight double-doubles on the season, averaging 16.3 points per game and 10 rebounds per game. Though only 6-6, Lalugba is a capable post player with the athleticism and strength to compete against the best teams in Division I. He erupted for a career-high 34 points and 13 rebounds against George Washington, and has amassed 16 rebounds in a game twice this season. Lalugba is one of the toughest interior players the Red will face all season, and stopping him will be a major focal point of Cornell’s defensive gameplan.
Sophomore forward Grant Harrell said, “One of our major concerns is Lalugba in the post. He killed us last year. He is extremely strong. He is as strong and athletic as we’ll see all year, including the bigger schools like Georgia Tech. He’s just a tremendous athlete. And, he’s only 6-6 and averaging over 15 points a game from the center position. That tells you right there how talented he is. He’s tough”.
Cornell head coach Steve Donahue concurred with his sophomore forward, saying about Lalugba, “He’s just really athletic and his skill level has improved every year. He really knows how to score. He’s confident and uses his athleticism around the rim. He’s just a very physical player for this level.”
Besides Lalugba, only one Bucknell player scores in double figures. Six-2 freshman guard Kevin Bettencourt chips in exactly 10 ppg, but shoots only .329 from the field. Nonetheless, the talented, but erratic Bettencourt can be dangerous from beyond the three-point line. He scored a career high 19 points against University California at Santa Barbara earlier in the year on 5-8 shooting from beyond the arc and added 18 in a loss to Lehigh two games ago.
Lalugba and Bettencourt will be joined in the starting line-up by 6-2 guards Dan Blankenship and Chris Rodgers and 6-11 center Davorin Skornik. A senior, Blankenship averages 7.7 ppg and 3 rpg, and leads the team with 44 assists as well. In the last five games he has committed only four turnovers while distributing 13 assists. Nonetheless, Bucknell struggles to score, averaging only 59.7 ppg on 41 percent shooting. Despite its offensive woes, Bucknell is solid in the interior, outrebounding opponents 32.7-30.6 per game. Donahue compares the Bison to other teams that have defeated the Red earlier in the season.
“This is a similar team to Colgate, Lehigh, New Hampshire. They had strong bodies and experienced players who wore us down late in the game. That’s the hurdle we’re trying to get over, and that’s why this is a huge test for us,” said Donahue.
If the Red is able to counter Bucknell’s interior strength, it will depend on yet another strong effort by center Eric Taylor. The 6-8 sophomore captain has led the Red in rebounding in all but one game, and leads the team in scoring (14.1), rebounding (7.5), and field goal percentage (.552). A deft passer for a big man, Taylor has also contributed 37 assists.
“Eric has to be a big part of most of our victories. I think he has to play well for us to win games. The low post is critical in every game, and this game is even more critical because they have a guy [Lalugba] who can really score down low,” he said.
Joining Taylor in the starting line-up will be forwards Lenny Collins and Grant Harrell, sophomore shooting guard Cody Toppert, and junior Ka’Ron Barnes. Recently moved to the point guard, Barnes has averaged 6.4 assists per game in his last five contests and averages 11.3 ppg on the year.
“I think I like playing point better. It’s just the fact that I have the ball in my hands more. I feel I can create more if I have it most of the time, and I’m comfortable with the role,” stated Barnes.
Toppert has continued to improve upon last season’s stellar freshman season, averaging 12.3 ppg and 4.8 rpg in 2002-03, both good for second on the team. Additionally, freshman Lenny Collins has contributed solid numbers all season, averaging 7.8 ppg and 4 rpg. Already named Ivy League Freshman of the Week three times, Collins is averaging 9.4 ppg in six starts.
Equally surprising as Collins’ contributions has been the emergence of 6-6 sophomore Grant Harrell. 2003 has been kind to the Florida native as he is averaging 11.2 ppg on 57 percent shooting since the advent of the new year. He had 15 points against Columbia last Saturday and has scored in double figures in four of the past five games after not breaking the double-digit mark in all of 2002.
“Basically, it’s just a matter of knocking down shots. I know it sounds simple, but that’s the name of the game. You get open shots, you knock them down or miss them. When you knock them down, you look good in the box score,” Harrell said.
If Harrell continues to excel and the rest of the starting five play to form, Cornell will surpass last season’s meager win total of five in just the 14th game of the 2002-03 season tonight. However, the Red has struggled to put together back-to-back solid efforts this season, often coming out flat after victories.
“We’ve learned that we have to stay mentally prepared and make sure that we’re ready coming off a victory. Usually people come out ready to play after a victory, but instead it has been the opposite for us. We’ve had letdowns, but we’ve learned from that before and I think we’re going to be ready,” commented Barnes.
Game time is 7 p.m. at Newman Arena, as Cornell looks to extend its series lead over the Bison to 21-17.
Archived article by Mark Fetzko