February 7, 2007

M. Basketball Faces Challenge

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It was the kind of defeat that can destroy even the most resilient teams. While the Cornell men’s basketball team’s loss on Saturday may only count once in the standings, you got a sense that it meant much more than that. Time and time again, one play has turned promising seasons into disappointments, leaving everyone to ask “what if.” As the season unfolds in the next few weeks, that loss will without a doubt be the turning point. It could lead to the team’s downfall. But by utilizing the sting of defeat as a driving force, it might also lead to success, en route to the ultimate prize. For the sake of the Newman Faithful everywhere, the latter would certainly be the sweeter conclusion.

Brimming with confidence and hope after dismantling Dartmouth one night earlier, Cornell was rolling. It just seemed like everything was starting to click. The Red had won four conference games in a row and seven of eight overall, vaulting itself into serious consideration for the Ivy League crown and more importantly, an NCAA tournament bid. It had blown out Princeton by 20 points. It held off Columbia in back-to-back weekends, displaying a certain mental toughness in the closing minutes that is characteristically reserved for more experienced teams. And against Dartmouth, Cornell turned it on in the second half, cruising to a 13-point victory and a share of second place in the Ivy League standings.

Even more impressive was the manner in which the Red picked apart its opponents. Employing an unusually deep rotation, including an 11-man effort against the Green, the Red has displayed a degree of versatility that few teams can match. While in past seasons, Cornell has stayed conservative with its defensive sets, head coach Steve Donahue has loosened the reigns on his game plan, leaving opponents out of rhythm on offense.

The results speak for themselves. In the last five games, including Saturday against the Crimson, the Red has limited its opponents to 51.4 points per contest. In fact, in league play, Cornell is first in scoring defense, allowing only 55.2 points.

As for the offense, the Red’s approach will never be compared to the manic style of Steve Nash and the Suns, but they do possess a group of players that can hurt you in a seemingly endless variety of ways.

On the perimeter, freshman Louis Dale has shown uncanny poise for such a young point guard, averaging 12.8 points per game and creating havoc for the opposition with an aggressive slashing style. Senior Graham Dow usually starts at the opposite guard spot. Dow leads the team with four assists per game, as he consistently looks to get to the rim and create scoring opportunities.

Possibly the most explosive player on the team occupies the wing, as freshman Ryan Wittman leads the squad with a 15.2 points per game average. Wittman may already be one of the best pure shooters in the Ivy League, proving to be nothing short of deadly from the perimeter. Sophomores Brian Kreefer and Jason Battle have split starts at the four, with each providing an offensive spark on occasion. In the middle, senior Andrew Naeve has compiled yet another impressive season, averaging 8.7 points and 7.2 rebounds, while providing a defensive presence in the paint that few teams can rely on.

Factor in the bench play of senior Ugo Ihekweazu — a guy who doesn’t always put up big numbers but whose defensive intensity and toughness always plays a part in the outcome — and the Red can beat you in a number of ways: inside the paint, on the perimeter and certainly on the defensive end of court.

Which is what makes Saturday night’s loss all the more painful. The atmosphere at Lavietes Pavilion was electrifying, especially considering the relative turnout at Newman Arena on a nightly basis. The Crimson fans, many of which hail from the surrounding Cambridge community, filled most of the arena in support of their hometown team. Yet, it was far from a one-sided battle in the stands. A cluster of Cornell graduates and parents cheered loudly, unabated by the hostile territory, as the Red mounted a furious comeback. Down by 14 points early in the second half, the Red rolled off 15 straight points to claim the lead.

This is when you could start to feel the excitement. Compliments of a Yale victory over previously unbeaten Penn, Cornell was in position to take a share of the lead in the Ivy League standings with just eight games remaining. To put that into perspective, the last time any team other than Penn or Princeton represented the conference in the NCAA tournament, the year was 1988. And that team just happened to be Cornell.

Of course, we all know the outcome of Saturday night’s game. With just 0.8 second left in regulation, Harvard scored the go-ahead basket, ultimately defeating the Red by one point after Wittman’s 3-pointer at the buzzer came up empty. With the loss, Cornell dropped to third place in the league and will likely have to win out to have any chance of going to the dance.

The whole team was utterly devastated. Even Donahue had to be interviewed on the bus, after running out of the arena immediately following the game. While he remained calm, you could see the disappointment all over his face.

Which brings us to the upcoming slate of games, starting with Brown and Yale this weekend. The Red could certainly fold up and mail it in after Saturday’s crushing defeat. Or they can show exactly what this team is made of. I certainly hope it will be the latter. Despite ultimately losing to the Crimson, Cornell showed some of its toughness in the second half, when it could have easily let the game slip away. It’s going to need some more of that toughness this weekend. The outcome of the season will depend on it.

Bryan Pepper is a Sun Senior Writer. Raising the Apple will appear every other Wednesday this semester.