On Saturday night, the men’s basketball team definitively proclaimed itself a serious contender for the Ivy League championship. Hosting first-place Yale at a nearly sold-out Newman Arena, the Red staved off a furious Bulldogs rally in the closing minutes to pull out a hard-fought, 60-59, victory.
With just 32 seconds remaining, freshman Ryan Wittman was fouled on a back-door pass from senior Andrew Naeve, and despite his relative inexperience, knocked down a pair of free throws to put the Red (13-9, 6-2 Ivy) ahead by one. Casey Hughes drew a foul on the other end with just 2 seconds to go, but was long on both attempts, sealing a Cornell victory and a share of second place in the conference standings.
[img_assist|nid=21310|title=Like a rock|desc=Senior tri-captain Andrew Naeve (42), who totaled 15 points and 10 rebounds against Yale, sends a defender sprawling as he puts up a a short jumper Saturday night in the Red’s 60-59 victory.|link=none|align=left|width=73|height=100]
“I think all the games we’ve been through this year — that almost prepares you for this [type of game],” said head coach Steve Donahue. “Even last Saturday, losing that game [against Harvard], prepared us for this. It really paid dividends in getting ready for tonight.”
The Red now sits just one game in the loss column behind first-place Penn, with six contests remaining. However, it certainly will have its work cut out for it in the coming weeks, as the team must travel for road games against both the Bulldogs (10-11, 6-2) and the Quakers.
“We put ourselves in position to be in contention over the next six games,” Donahue said. “That’s all we did right now. That’s what we want.”
Unfortunately for the Red, four of its last six will be on the road, just when the Cornell community was providing a little home-court advantage. On Saturday night, 3,456 fans showed up at Newman Arena, cheering wildly for the home team.
“The crowd was spectacular,” Donahue said. “The environment was awesome. It’s what you need on a late Saturday night for a surge. I thought they brought great energy. It was so much fun having the arena rocking like that. I feel happy for our seniors because they’ve been through so much here and now they play a really meaningful game in February — it’s just great stuff.”
Cornell jumped out to an early lead in the opening minutes with its perimeter players hitting on all cylinders. Freshman Louis Dale scored eight points in the first four minutes, while Wittman and freshman Alex Tyler provided an early scoring punch, as the Red led 23-8 with 9 minutes remaining in the first half.
“We stress getting off to a good start,” Donahue said. “We came out ready to execute, inside and out. We did a lot of good things. I think that’s critical.”
However, Yale responded, closing out the half on a 17-9 run and cutting the Cornell lead to seven, 32-25, heading into the locker room. Tyler led all scorers at the intermission, netting 10 points on 5-of-6 shooting.
“Alex helps us compete with the better teams in the league,” Donahue said. “We’ve never had a physical presence down there that can score and people have to respect. They started doubling him and now other people can score because he’s effective. He’s a huge part of our team.”
Cornell came out strong once again in the beginning of the second half, building its lead to 12, 49-37, with under 11 minutes to go. However, that’s when Eric Flato started to take over. Flato, who was averaging 14.6 points per game entering the weekend, hit a driving layup followed by a pair of 3-pointers to cut the Red lead to four. On Yale’s very next possession, a jumper by Matt Kyle cut it to two, and suddenly, Cornell was in danger of losing its sizeable advantage.
But Naeve would not allow his squad to go down quietly. The senior center scored nine straight points for Cornell, as the Red extended its lead to four, 58-54, with 2:25 remaining.
“I wasn’t being as aggressive in the first half flashing to the ball,” Naeve said. “In the second half, I got after it a little more and it paid off for me.”
Donahue was especially impressed with his effort late in the second half.
“Andrew’s game just keeps improving. That’s the beauty of him as a senior. He comes to practice everyday [ready to work],” Donahue said. “He’s got great heart. He has a little bit of talent, but he has an incredible amount of determination and passion for the game every single time.”
Yale would of course fight back, scoring five straight points to take the lead, before Wittman’s heroics propelled Cornell to victory. Even with the season on the line, the freshman remained calm at the charity stripe, knocking down both attempts like a seasoned veteran.
“Foul shooting’s a huge part of the game. Witt[man] — I can’t imagine anyone I’d want on the line more than him,” Donahue said. “It’s funny because he had a couple misses recently. But, he just has that presence about him. He wants the ball and it doesn’t matter if he’s a freshman or not. I have great confidence in him.”
As for the final play, Donahue ultimately wanted the ball in the hands of his leading scorer.
“I thought late in the game, I trust Andrew making the pass and Ryan’s so good at getting balls. If you put it in his area, he just has a knack of understanding where to get it,” Donahue said. “I wanted the ball in his hands, but I didn’t want him coming off a screen — I thought they really guarded that stuff. So, we wanted something going towards the basket.”
With the victory, Cornell will be in position to decide its fate over the next three weeks. However, for the time being, it’s going to enjoy this one.
“I was telling all the guys on the court that it’s the most important win we’ve had since I’ve been here,” Naeve said.