If close games can cause heart attacks, the women’s basketball team should have all been in the emergency room after a weekend of walking the tight rope against Princeton and Penn. The Red squeaked out a late comeback victory over Princeton, 69-66, before coming up short against Penn, 49-48.
Friday night, with a couple of minutes remaining, the medium crowd in Newman Arena fell silent. With the teams swapping time outs and Cornell (10-13, 6-4 Ivy) suddenly down by four after trading baskets all half, the enthusiasm diminished. As the hip-hop music played over the arena speakers, Cornell plotted its comeback in the huddle.
[img_assist|nid=21475|title=Get some air|desc=Junior Moina Snyder (right) goes up for a shot during her seven point, seven rebound performance in Cornell’s 49-48 loss to Penn on Saturday.|link=none|align=left|width=67|height=100]
“It didn’t even feel like we were losing,” said sophomore Jeomi Maduka.
“We were down, but we never had the thought that we were going to lose,” said senior tri-captain Claire Perry.
With just over two minutes remaining, Cornell tightened up on defense and Maduka took over. As she had all night, Maduka — who finished with 18 points and 11 rebounds — drove the lane aggressively. She scored on an off-balance layup that brought the Red within a bucket of tying the score. Coach Smith waived her arms furiously to remind her defenders to keep their hands up as they back peddled back on defense. However, the problem for the Red would be something else — boxing out. Princeton (10-13, 4-5) got several looks on each possession down the stretch as it kept cleaning up on the offensive glass, despite Cornell winning the rebounding battle, 41-37. The Tigers’ attempts all clanged off the rim and the Red got the ball back with just over 30 seconds remaining.
“It kind of went back to the first Princeton game,” Maduka said. “We just stayed composed. In the huddle I told everyone there was no way they were going to win.”
Maduka made sure her statement proved true as she got the ball just beyond the left elbow and drove hard left. Leaving her feet under the basket, Maduka was knocked off-balance as she tossed in the layup with a whistle blowing in the background. The bucket tied the game and the ensuing free throw put the Red up by a single point.
“It wasn’t really a drawn out play,” Maduka said. “They put this random girl on me who hadn’t really played all game, and I decided that I could drive against her.”
This time, with the Red back on defense with 20 seconds left, Smith’s advice turned out to be key. Junior Gretchen Gregg nabbed the Tiger’s entry pass out of the air, one of 10 steals and 18 turnovers the Red forced on the evening.
“I just made sure my hands were up,” Gregg said. “The coaches are always stressing keeping my hands up. I just focused on where her eyes were going and I figured they were going to go inside.”
Off this particular turnover, Cornell put in perhaps the most important of the 23 points-off-turnovers it had in the match. Princeton intentionally fouled Gregg, putting her on the line for a couple of tries from the charity stripe.
“Well we got a huddle before the time out was called and [sophomore tri-captain] Kayleen [Fitzsimmons] calmed us all down. Then in the team timeout we were just talking about what was going to happen after the free throws, so they didn’t really even cross my mind.”
Despite the intense atmosphere of the game, Cornell remained poised and executed efficiently throughout the night, committing only 10 turnovers. Freshman Lauren Benson ran the offense most of the evening, finishing with 13 points, eight boards and four assists.
“We had a sense of urgency,” Maduka said. “We just valued every possession and knew every one was important.”
“It’s just the confidence we have in one another,” Perry said. “We knew we could do it because we had done it before and we just executed the offense.”
Unfortunately for the Red, the sense of urgency was not there the next night against Penn (9-13, 4-5), nor was the crisp offensive execution. Cornell turned the ball over 19 times and went cold from the floor in the second half, only connecting on 26.9 percent of its shots on its way to the loss. Throughout the evening, though, neither team played scintillating offense, as the theme would be defense all night.
The first half was slow-paced, with a swapping of baskets. The Red concentrated its defensive efforts on the Quakers’ two leading scorers, Joey Rhoads and Monica Naltner, who both average 16.7 points per game. While Cornell effectively kept Rhoads and Naltner in check, Penn’s supporting cast stepped up to carry the Quakers. Lauren Pears tallied 16 points and Ashley Gray, playing in only her ninth game of the season, dropped 14 points and pulled down 12 boards.
“We focused in on their two leading scorers and we did a really good job on them,” Gregg said. “But you know, we weren’t supposed to let others score like that.”
“Even the first time we played, Penn [Gray] had a career day,” Maduka said. “She only averages like six points a game, I don’t even understand it.”
Nonetheless, the Red played fairly stingy defense throughout the night, forcing 20 turnovers 12 steals, taking a 27-24 lead into the break. In the locker room, Penn decided to overhaul its game plan. After taking 11-of-26 field goals from long range in the first stanza, the Quakers decided to pound the ball into the post, putting up only one 3 in the second half. The plan was effective for them, outscoring the Red 32-20 in the paint on the evening.
“I think they scouted us on that taking it inside,” Maduka said. “They saw something in some film that made them think our forwards can’t play defense. They definitely practiced that this week.”
Penn built up a seven-point lead and it looked as if the game was slipping away, but the Red had one final chance for victory.
“We knew that all we had was 7 minutes left and all we needed to do was hold them on defense and we wouldn’t have practice on Monday,” Maduka said. “It was the end of back-to-back games and we all knew that we just had a little more to go before we would be done. If you put that kind of pressure on us, we can really step up our team defense.”
Cornell held Penn scoreless for the rest of the game, and sophomore Shannan Scarselletta’s laid the ball in with 53 seconds left to bring the Red within a point. But the two ensuing scoreless possessions resulted in a turnover and a couple of shots that clanked off the iron.
“They just ran it at our forwards a bit and Ashley Gray had a great game,” Gregg said. “They must have seen something on film.”