November 12, 2007

Men's Basketball Earns Victory in Season Opener

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It was 3 minutes into the game and the men’s basketball team still hadn’t scored. For all the preseason hype, Cornell had come out tight, turning the ball over four times in those three minutes. Then junior Collin Robinson, just off the bench, beat his defender to the right side, stopped at the elbow and drained a quick jumper.
Backpedaling down the court, clapped his hands and screamed “Let’s go! Let’s go!” as if trying to will his teammates into action.
The squad must have listened as it reeled off eight more straight points after that bucket to give itself a lead it wouldn’t relinquish for the rest of the evening, winning 87-83 over Lehigh.
“They were hyped,” said head coach Steve Donahue. “You saw tightness. They wanted to knock them out 100-0 right off the bat and make everybody say, “Look they’re good.” But that’s all part of this and part of being a good team. It’s figuring out how to be composed.”
Fueled by a backcourt that proved its prowess from distance — shooting 10-for-17 from downtown — and a frontcourt that gave the squad much needed buckets in the second half, Cornell (1-0) built a 15-point lead and then held on to win by four. The game started with two quick misses from behind the arc.
“We’ve simplified things quite a bit since last year,” Donahue said. “And we’ll find as we go how much we can get away with and how much we can’t. For the most part, we apply an incredible amount of pressure. Defend and get the ball up the floor and attack. There’s going to be more bad shots in this type of offense than last year. You have to live with that because you want to be aggressive because that’s where I think we’re dangerous. I don’t want to slow it down.”
In front of a rowdy Newman crowd clad in white “Newman Nation” tee-shirts, the Red pushed the ball with Robinson playing the point most of the half and only missed two more 3s before halftime.
“[Robinson] did well,” said sophomore Ryan Wittman. “He can break his guy down and get in the lane really easily. He did a good job of scoring and finding people open.”
Robinson did both in one stretch late in the first half. Up 20-10, Robinson’s defender met him beyond the 3-point line as he rushed the ball upcourt. He shook his man with a crossover, and went left toward the hoop. Three men collapsed on him but he found sophomore Geoff Reeves wide open for a 3.
On the next possession, Robinson went around his man to the right, got a little separation, and created even more as he faded away while netting the shot.
But while Robinson finished shooting 3-of-9 for eight points, five assists and four rebounds, it was Wittman who was the sharpshooter for the Red. He finished with 15 points on 5-of-6 shooting from behind the arc. He spurred a stretch in which Cornell drained four 3s in a row, accounting for most of an 18-3 run to put the team up 18-5.
“[Towards the] end of the first half, when we started making shots, we were moving the ball well and getting open looks,” Wittman said. “That’s why we were scoring.”
With the infusion of Robinson (transfer) and junior Adam Gore (injury) to the backcourt, as well as sophomore Andre Wilkins (transfer) and senior Jason Hartford (injury) to the frontcourt, the Red at times struggled to find a rhythm with each other.
“We had several new people who hadn’t played with us all last year,” Donahue said. “So what I saw were good spurts where we were really explosive. I saw real good defense at times. But at times I found myself thinking, ‘wow, where did those two minutes go?’”
Cornell put together two of those two-minute stretches in the last 4 minutes of the first half, as Lehigh went into intermission on an 11-2 run. Some of the issue stemmed from a breakdown in perimeter defense, leading to issues on the glass.
“We gave up a lot of penetration,” Donahue said. “Somebody helps, a shot goes up — that guy’s helping so his man goes to the boards. We probably lost about five or six possessions like that. … We got beat off the dribble a fair amount. I think we’re a team that has to keep people in front of us. We have to know who our man is.”
Indeed, Lehigh pulled down four offensive boards in the final four minutes and held the overall edge over that span 8-1.
The Lehigh backcourt tandem of Marquis Hall and Prentice Small were responsible for infiltrating the lane.
“[Hall and Small] were quick, [Small] especially,” Gore said. “So when they get a running start at you it’s a lot harder to try and back up and guard them.”
Hall finished with a team-high 17 points, while small had 13. They were also responsible for getting Bryan White and Zahir Carrington — who each had 16 points the ball in the post.
With Lehigh charged, Cornell came out of the locker room and shifted the focus a little bit more toward trying to feed the post. Hartford — who finished with 19 points and eight boards — keyed a run that opened up a Red 10-point lead at 45-35. He put back an offensive rebound, banked home a jumper, then stepped out for a 3 to total seven of nine Cornell points early in the second half.
“I think you saw a guy who had real good moments but got tired and did some things he normally wouldn’t do,” Donahue said. “I thought he really helped us in stretches. He’s a good weapon to have because he can score, pass and shoot from outside.”
“We’ve got a lot of capable guys inside who can score,” Wittman said. “I think that was evident tonight. When we needed a basket we went inside and we got a basket.”
The post game was set up by the distribution of sophomore Louis Dale from the point guard position. Dale ran the point for much of the second half, finishing with 10 assists and 12 points.
“I thought Louis had a good rhythm to his game and he was really breaking the press and finding guys,” Donahue said. “Maybe a little more experience, too. Collin hasn’t really played a basketball game since high school. He sat out a year and didn’t really play at USC. So I thought, with it being his first game, ‘let’s let Louis take care of things here.’ And they both did a good job.”
Still, Lehigh would not go away. With 2 minutes remaining and trailing 77-63, the Moutain Hawks decided to put the full-court press on. The Red did not handle the pressure well. It threw the ball away on a desperate heave to try and cross midcourt, got called for traveling when Lehigh brought the backcourt trap, threw an inbounds pass out of bounds and was forced to call a timeout when Wittman got double-teamed in the corner couldn’t pass the ball.
“Honestly, I can’t even tell you [why we had trouble],” Gore said. “You would think with the guys we have on the team, we wouldn’t have a problem.”
“I just think it’s the part of the season more than anything else,” Donahue said. “You know, since we don’t press a whole lot, we don’t waste a lot of time practicing it. … Give Lehigh credit they really scrambled and helped out.”
But despite drawing within 85-83, Lehigh couldn’t come all the way back.
“It’s a real good effort for a first game, but obviously we have a lot of work to do,” Donahue said.