PRINCETON, N.J. — It would have been easy for the men’s basketball team to look past its Friday night matchup with Ivy League bottom-feeder Princeton and glance towards its first-place showdown with Penn. However, the Red took care of business, holding off a late Tiger rally to gain a 57-50 victory at Jadwin Gym.
“We did a lot of the stuff that wins games in general,” said head coach Steve Donahue. “In a game like this, which I knew was going to be hard fought, we got long rebounds, loose balls, taking charges … those were the kind of plays that would win this game.”
Cornell (14-10, 7-3 Ivy) swept the season series and has won three straight against the Tigers since breaking a 19-game losing streak a season ago. Donahue hopes that the recent wins against a former powerhouse like Princeton (11-12, 2-7) are indicative of his team’s climb toward the top of the Ivy League.
“I want to be known as a team that plays the game the right way,” Donahue said. “We are fighting our way to the top and our guys are committed to getting better every day. When teams play well its because the players have taken ownership of the team. … That is what has happened here in the last two years.”
Cornell came out of the gate aggressively, scoring the first seven points of the game on a pair of buckets from senior tri-captain Andrew Naeve and a 3 from freshman Ryan Wittman. By the 14:04 mark, Cornell had already pushed its lead to 12.
“I thought the crucial part of the game was the beginning,” said Princeton head coach Joe Scott. “They were aggressive early on and it gave them a lead that they could always play with.”
Cornell used solid shooting from the foul line to maintain its first-half lead as it nailed 14-of-18 attempts. Princeton, in contrast, only got to the line five times and was only able to convert two attempts.
“We know that [free thows] are going to win games for us,” Wittman said. “We are seeing in these past few games how free throws have affected the outcome.”
For the game, Cornell converted on 25-of-32 shots at the line.
“They were the aggressor,” Scott said. “That’s how you get fouled and that’s just how it works.”
With 7 seconds left in the half, Wittman hit an open 3 to give the Red a 14-point lead before a running 3 by the Tigers’ Kyle Koncz sent the squads to the locker room with Cornell up 11, 36-25. Koncz, who has been playing limited minutes as he overcomes injury was on fire for the Tigers in the first half, scoring 14 points including knocking down four of his five shots from beyond the arc.
“We know he’s our best player,” Scott said. “And he is doing it on one foot.”
Princeton went scoreless for almost six minutes to begin the second half, but Cornell was only able to extend its lead by five during that period. Princeton finally got involved when five straight points by Kevin Steuerer cut the lead back to 11.
In a defensive battle, the Red used a variety of different defenses — including an assertive 1-3-1 full court press — to stymie the Tigers, who committed 13 turnovers on the game.
The teams exchanged baskets until Naeve picked up his fifth personal foul and was forced to leave the game with less than four minutes left to play. Without Naeve’s imposing presence in the middle, Princeton — whose lineup consisted almost entirely of guards — now had a chance to utilize its quickness.
“In a game like this, [Andrew fouling out] means more than any other game,” Donahue said. “They had five guys under 6-4 out there.”
Impressive ball movement by Princeton allowed Steuerer to come up big again, as he made a wide-open 3-pointer to cut the lead to four, 46-42.
“That was a big shot to put us down four,” Steuerer said. “I felt the whole second half we were really playing well and it is definitely something to build on.”
Four points, however, was as close as Princeton would get as more free-throw shooting by the Red would seal the game. Down the stretch, Wittman and fellow freshman Louis Dale hit nine-of- 10 attempts from the foul line, while Princeton was only able to trade baskets and couldn’t cut the lead past four.
Despite its prowess from the line, Cornell was only 4-of-16 from the field in the second half as Princeton’s young squad was extremely active on the defensive end of the floor.
“I thought [Princeton] played their tails off defensively,” Donahue said.
Naeve led the Red with his third straight double-double, with 11 points and 10 rebounds, while Wittman led all scorers with 20. Scott had nothing but praise for Cornell’s young star.
“We obviously didn’t stop Wittman,” he said. “He makes big shots. When you make a mistake he makes you pay, that is why he is a good player.”