The last time the Cornell men’s basketball team beat a Big Ten opponent was in January 1968, when the Red topped Ohio State in Columbus, 76-64. Nearly 40 years later, Cornell has done it again.
[img_assist|nid=19819|title=Come get it|desc=Freshman Ryan Wittman (20) scored 18 points in the Red’s season-opening win at Northwestern. (G. Scott Russ / Sun Contributor)|link=popup|align=left|width=73|height=100]
On Friday night, facing a raucous Wildcats crowd in Evanston, Ill., the Red held off Northwestern, 64-61, overcoming an early 14-4 deficit to capture its first victory of the season. For the second year in a row, Cornell has jumped out to a 1-0 start, with both victories coming on the road.
“When you go to a Big Ten arena into a hostile environment, you need to give 100 percent effort both mentally and physically,” said head coach Steve Donahue. “We played hard for 40 straight minutes. We didn’t let a bad shot or a run by Northwestern affect our emotion. We did a great job.”
The victory has special meaning for Donahue and the entire Cornell basketball community, as it was scheduled in large part to allow Bob Gallagher ’44 to attend the game in his hometown. Gallagher, a member of the Cornell Athletics Hall of Fame for his decorated playing career and crucial contributions to the program, remained an avid fan of the team until he passed away in August. In fact, Gallagher had a direct impact on Donahue himself, as the former player endowed the head coaching position in 1993. The Red certainly honored his memory on Friday night.
The game began with a quick start from Cornell, as sophomore Adam Gore completed a 4-point play in the opening minute to put the squad in front early. However, the lead would be short-lived, as the Wildcats immediately rolled off 14 straight points, putting Cornell in a 10-point hole.
But the Red kept fighting, cutting the lead to four at 16-12, behind 3-pointers by Gore and freshman Ryan Wittman and a pair of free throws by senior Andrew Naeve.
“It’s easy to fold your tent in the first game of the year when you fall behind early,” Donahue said. “But we continued to play hard and believe in ourselves.”
Cornell cut the lead to two on three different occasions, before the Wildcats extended their advantage to eight on a pair of 3-pointers. However, the Red proved resilient once again, going on a run late in the first half to keep within striking distance, heading to the locker room down by only two, 32-30. Wittman and classmate Louis Dale connected from behind the arc to spark the offense.
“Wittman and Dale were very poised for freshman playing in their first games,” Donahue said. “They played extremely well under adverse conditions.”
Dale finished the game with seven points and Wittman added 18 and three rebounds, while playing all 40 minutes.
“Ryan’s a good basketball player,” Donahue said. “He knows how to play all aspects of the game. He can really handle the ball well for his size. And he can obviously shoot very well. He’s a tough player to matchup against. … [As for Dale,] once he got the jitters out early in the game, I though Louis played very well. He made good decisions and took open shots when he had them. He is only going to get better as the season continues.”
After shooting over 50 percent as a team in the first half, the Red came out hot in the second, taking its first lead since the opening minutes with 17:01 left in regulation on a putback by Naeve. The center put together a solid effort in the paint, compiling 10 points and 10 rebounds for his fourth career double-double.
“Andrew got nine rebounds in the second half, which is spectacular against a Big Ten team,” Donahue said. “He’s a very good defender and he plays with a
lot of energy. He does a lot of the little things to help us win.”
After a 3-pointer put the Wildcats back in front, the Red immediately responded with a 10-1 run, giving the visitors their biggest lead of the game at 51-43. However, Cornell was never able to land the knockout blow, as Northwestern answered with a run of its own to retake the lead at 52-51.
The Red pulled back in front with less than four minutes to play on a free throw by sophomore Brian Kreefer. However, the sophomore was hardly done. On the Red’s next possession, Kreefer grabbed a loose ball off a deflected pass and hit an off-balance 3-pointer to extend the lead back to five, 60-55, with 2:12 to play. He also added an offensive rebound shortly thereafter, keeping another crucial possession alive.
“[Kreefer] made several critical plays in the last two minutes of the game,” Donahue said. “If he doesn’t make those plays, we don’t win the game.”
With the score at 62-61, Wittman went to the line and sunk a pair of free throws with seven seconds remaining. Northwestern used two timeouts to maneuver a play with 4.8 seconds left, but Craig Moore’s last-second attempt was long and the rebound was recovered by the Red.
Gore led Cornell with 20 points on 7-of-13 shooting, including 5-of-10 from behind the arc. He also added four assists, as the Wildcats predictably tried to shut down the Red’s best scorer.
“He understands now that he is our leader and when we needed a basket, he stepped up,” Donahue said. “He also made good decisions to find other guys when his shot wasn’t there.”
For the game, Northwestern shot only 42 percent from the field and 29 percent from 3-point range. Four Wildcat players reached double-digits in scoring, led by Sterling Williams and Tim Doyle with 11. In contrast, Cornell shot 49 percent, while out-rebounding the Wildcats 29-26.
“If we can limit opponents to one shot, we think we will have a good chance,” Donahue said. “And for the most part, that’s what we did. I’m not sure how good we can be on the offensive boards, but we can be a very good defensive rebounding team.”