While nothing tangible seems to have changed, the New Year seems to have made a world of difference for the men’s basketball team. Losers of four in a row heading into 2007, the Red has won 5-of-6 since then, including two in a row against Ivy League foes. The latter came in New York City last Saturday against rival Columbia, as Cornell tightened up its defense in the closing minutes to earn a much-needed come-from-behind victory.
However, the Lions (10-7, 1-2 Ivy) will be looking for revenge at 3 p.m. tomorrow, when they visit Newman Arena for the back-end of the home-and-home series. With a 2-1 conference record (9-8 overall), the Red currently sits in second place in the league behind undefeated Penn, needing a season sweep over the Lions to keep pace.
“Playing the same team for the second time is more of a mental test,” said senior center Andrew Naeve. “Both teams know what the other is going to do. The game is going to be decided by hustle plays and mental toughness.”
In last Saturday’s meeting, Cornell trailed 43-40 with 8:58 remaining, before holding Columbia to just two points the rest of the way to secure a 49-45 victory.
[img_assist|nid=20947|title=Going strong|desc=Senior Andrew Naeve (42) reaches high for a layup during the Red-White scrimmage on Nov. 4.|link=none|align=left|width=39|height=100]
“In the last 10 minutes last weekend, we were much more aggressive and they had trouble getting anything going,” Naeve said. “[Tomorrow], we have to be really active in our man defense. We must be aggressive and we can’t let them make easy passes.”
With no seniors on the roster, Columbia is paced by a pair of juniors, forward John Baumann and center Ben Nwachukwu. The tandem ranks 1-2 on the Lions in scoring, averaging 12.1 and 9.6 points per game respectively. Together, the duo makes up over one-third of the Columbia offense, as the Lions consistently attempt to pound the ball inside the paint.
Last weekend, however, they were not all that successful in doing so. While Baumann had 13 points, Nwachukwu was held scoreless, primarily due to the defensive effort by Naeve. The senior was able to force Nwachukwu off the block and control the glass, grabbing nine rebounds to go along with 15 points on an efficient 6-of-8 shooting.
“Andrew had a tremendous game and all the credit goes to him and [senior forward] Ugo [Ihekweazu], who was playing the four for most of the day,” said senior guard Graham Dow. “Hopefully Andrew has another great game. We know they have a good frontline so being able to control the block is a big thing for us.”
An undersized power forward, Ihekweazu was giving up three inches to the 6-8 Baumann but was nevertheless able hold his own on the boards, with each player grabbing five rebounds apiece.
“Last week, Baumann made a few three-pointers,” Naeve said. “But, he is known for his inside play. Ugo did a great job at not letting him catch it deep and contesting his shots.”
While Cornell did an excellent job in their defensive sets down the stretch last Saturday, its offensive attack remained stagnant for much of the afternoon. With 49 points, the Red was held well below its 66.1 season average.
“We can do a better job of pushing the ball,” Naeve sad. “We were sluggish last weekend in terms of getting rebounds and walking it up the court. We need to do a better job of getting in transition. Hopefully, we can use our defense to get our offense going.”
When operating in the half court set, the Red will look to create scoring chances for its freshman point guard Louis Dale, who took over in the closing of Saturday’s games. Dale scored the final nine points for Cornell, finishing the game with 13 and eight rebounds.
“[Dale’s] ability to make plays as the year has gone on has been a big part of our success,” Naeve said. “He has gotten better and better with his decision-making. He is able to get to the rim and get teammates involved in the offense.”
With both sides very familiar with each other’s style of play, the game will likely come down to the end. As a result the Red will once again need to show poise down the stretch if it is to prevail.
“I think it’s been a growing process all year,” Dow said. “Early in the season, we struggled late in games. We didn’t know what it took to close. Lately though, we have started to turn the corner. Last weekend, we really did it on the defensive end. If we play defense like that, we will be in every ball game and be able to finish.”