As far as Ivy League men’s basketball goes, this weekend is as good as it gets.
The Red (10-12, 5-3 Ivy) will play host to Princeton (7-13, 5-2 Ivy) in Newman Arena tonight in a battle for second place in the league standings. Then, tomorrow night, Cornell will have its final chance of the season to defeat first-place Penn (15-6, 7-0).
The Ancient Eight has awarded a men’s basketball title for 57 years – and for 25 of those years, the Tigers have taken home the crown, while the Quakers have claimed the top spot 23 times. The other six schools have divvied up the nine leftover titles, including Cornell’s lone Ivy banner from the 1987-88 season. But even with all the history and the current battle underway in the standings, Cornell head coach Steve Donahue said that his team is focused on more immediate goals.
“I think more on our minds is just playing well against two of the better teams in our league. They’ve been the standard for this league for so many years, there’s no denying that you want to be considered a team that’s up with those teams,” he said. “And that’s what we’re going to try to do, play our best basketball. Not really concerned with any more than that, just play our best, play as hard as you can, play with great passion – and if that’s good enough, great, if not, then that’s fine as well. If we feel that we came out and did everything we possibly could to put ourselves in a position to win, then I have no problem with the results.”
Both Cornell and Princeton enter the weekend having won five of their last seven games. And although the Red defeated the Tigers, 57-49, on Jan. 14, a drastically changed Princeton squad will be making the trip to the East Hill.
After starting the season with a dismal 3-11 record, the Tigers moved 6-4 center Justin Conway up from the junior varsity squad. Although the junior averages just 4.8 points and a team-best 3.7 rebounds per game, the intangibles he brings to the court in his 31.2 minutes per game have helped Princeton to a 4-2 record since his arrival, with losses coming against Davidson and Penn.
“They’re playing a lot better than they were when we first played them, and they’re much different with the kid Conway playing the 5-spot for them, [who] never played until after our game,” Donahue said. “I think he’s done a terrific job with them, they’ve won big road games and they played Penn very hard down at the Palestra.”
Before the loss to Penn last Tuesday, the Tigers were on a four-game winning streak in which they shot just under 42 percent from the field, including 42 percent from downtown. Princeton – which has scored nearly 50 percent of its points this season from behind the arc – has struggled offensively this season, putting up a league-worst 48.1 points per game. The Tigers’ outside attack will face off against a Cornell defense that has held its opponents to a league-leading 29 percent shooting from 3-point range.
“We’re expecting them to play very well,” senior Lenny Collins said. “They’re getting out in transition, they’re physical down low, they’ve got good guards. They’re a real good team, they’re a tough team. I think a lot of it just has to do with us dealing with their physicality all over the court, just being mentally prepared to handle the pressure that they’re going to put on us.”
Noah Savage is the only Princeton player averaging double digits, with 10.2 points per game. However, Luke Owings has come on strong lately, leading the Tigers in scoring in their last two contests. Owings is also shooting 42 percent from 3-point range for the season, fifth-best in the Ivies and trailing Cornell freshman Adam Gore, who has connected on 45 percent of his 3-point attempts to lead the conference.
A win over the Tigers would secure a season sweep for the Red – and would be the first time since the 1946-47 and 1947-48 seasons that Cornell has swept Princeton in back-to-back campaigns.
The brutal Ivy tradition of back-to-back games will be especially tough for the Red tomorrow night, when it will take on the unbeaten Quakers for the second time this season. Penn posted an 84-44 victory over Cornell in the teams’ first meeting on Jan. 13. For senior tri-captains Lenny Collins, David Lisle, and Ryan Rourke, this will be the last chance to post a win over the Quakers in their collegiate careers.
“First thing, I want to beat Penn,” Collins said. “We haven’t beaten Penn since I’ve been here, or the year before that, so we haven’t beaten them in a long time. So I definitely want to and beat them. More than that, just come out and play good basketball. I think we’ve been playing pretty well the last five, six games, so hopefully we can continue that this weekend.”
The Quakers have beaten Ivy foes by an average of 23.1 points this season, although they have shown flashes of vulnerability – most recently when Yale jumped out to a 16-1 lead on Feb. 4 in the Palestra. However, Penn quickly reasserted its dominance in that game, taking the lead 45 seconds into the second half en route to a comfortable 22-point margin of victory. Those 45 seconds were the only time the Quakers have trailed during the second half of an Ivy League game this season. In six of its seven conference games – with a 19-point victory over Princeton this past Tuesday the only exception – Penn has held at lead a 20-point lead at some point of the contest.
The Quakers boast the league’s top scorer in Ibrahim Jaaber, who is averaging 17.8 points per game. Jaaber also leads the Ancient Eight with 3.48 steals per game, and his team has grabbed a league-best 9.78 steals per game. Donahue believes this statistic – along with the limited assists teams have posted against the Quakers – reveals how Penn has maintained its perch atop the conference standings.
“Penn has done a tremendous job on the defensive end of the floor. It’s almost like they don’t worry about the offense,” he said. “They’re limiting teams – if you look at the stats that to me is mindboggling for them – is how little assists they give up and how many turnovers they get. And they really don’t press, so they’re doing this in the half court, so your offense is stagnant against them and they’re stealing balls.”
Donahue said that limiting turnovers, executing in the half-court set, and preventing Penn from getting a transition game started will be the keys to hanging with the Quakers for the entire game. Looking back on the Red’s January loss at the Palestra, Collins agreed.
“I think it just comes down to us taking care of the ball,” Collins said. “Especially in the second half, when they went on the run, it was because of the things that we did – just turning the ball over, making foolish mistakes. I think if we can limit those mistakes, it would give us a good opportunity to stay with them and put us in a good place towards the end of the game.”
Another crucial aspect of the game for the Red will be the play of junior point guard Graham Dow, who is still suffering lingering effects from an injury suffered last season that left him with an inflamed pelvis.
“I’m hoping that Princeton is not an up and down game as much as normal – that that [game] won’t take the wear and tear so he can do it [tomorrow night],” Donahue said. “He’s such a key to us, just all the little things he does, and he brings calmness to us.”
Mark Zoller provides backup for Jaaber with 12.6 tallies per game, while Eric Osmundson chips in an even 10.0 points per contest to go with a team-best 6.7 rebounds per game. Steve Danley adds another inside threat with 9.9 points and 5.7 rebounds per game.
Donahue will also face “a great friend and a terrific mentor” tomorrow night, as he worked as an assistant coach under Penn head coach Fran Dunphy for 10 years.
“That’s really set aside when we play them,” Donahue said. “I want to beat them as much as anybody because they’re the best team in the league. Once again – that’s where we want to be. That’s the motivation.”
Archived article by Olivia Dwyer
Sun Assistant Sports Editor