November 26, 2007

Red Sweeps Over Break Using Balanced Offense

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Thanksgiving dinner would most certainly be the proverbial turkey of every student’s Thanksgiving break — the guaranteed essentials. For the men’s basketball team, its wins over Army right before break and Siena yesterday would be the stuffing and mashed potatoes of the break — not guaranteed to happen, but making it just that much better.
Last Tuesday night, Cornell hit the court at Newman Arena during the mass exodus of Ithaca, and ran away from Army in the second half to win 93-78. The Red got a big boost from its bench, which scored 45 points — to Kinghts’ 23. Junior Brian Kreefer led the charge with 21 points — two shy of his career best.
“Going into the game I honestly thought our guys wouldn’t understand how hard [Army was] going to play — how well coached they were going to be” said head coach Steve Donahue. “We’re still fairly young, but I knew [junior Jason Battle] understands it and I know Kreef understands it. I’m going to them pretty quickly. It’s a learning experience for a couple guys tonight that you can’t just show up, you have to really be ready.”
Donahue went to his experienced guys early on as Cornell came out with its heads down on offense, not moving the ball well.
“In the first half we were playing a little too fast,” Kreefer said.
“A lot of times we would dribble and they were causing deflections and steals,” said sophomore guard Louis Dale, who finished with 17 points and seven assists.
So, Donahue went to the guys one his bench who were battle tested against Patriot League squads, subbing in Kreefer and junior Jason Battle frequently. With Army’s starting center heading to the bench early and only playing two minutes, Donahue was able to use a four-guard lineup with Kreefer as the undersized center.
“They went small a lot,” Donahue said. “They have good team quickness throughout. I thought we could have Kreef at the five. He was a good skilled guy at the top of the key. They were overplaying a lot of stuff and we had to go through that middle guy and I thought Kreef was the guy that would be better than one of our bigger low post guys.
“I thought if we just took our time and read the defense we could really pick them apart,” Kreefer said. “I tried to take my time.”
And Kreefer did just that, becoming the distributor from the free throw line. He also was effective popping out to set screens then rolling towards the basket.
“They really hedged out aggressively and they all helped over from the ball side so there was no one really to help out the on the roll guy,” Kreefer said. “A lot of times I just found myself wide open in the lane and then all I had to do was put it in or find the open man.”
The effectiveness of the pick-and-roll was just one example of the Red’s dribble penetration. Attacking the basket from the perimeter on a consistent basis, Cornell got to the charity stripe 38 times, converting 31 shots. It was the first time since 1993 that the Red had netted at least 30 free throws.
The Army backcourt duo of Mitch McDonald and Jarell Brown was keeping the Black Knights in the game, though. The Cornell defense struggled to fight through screens, freeing the guards up for open looks. Brown was 5-of-7 from distance on his way to 30 points.
Donahue changed his defensive strategy in the locker room, leading 47-43 at the break.
“It was a different mentality on defense,” Dale said. “We changed the gameplan going into the second half and that helped a lot. We started switching on picks and that helped us stay in front of them and keep dribble penetration to a minimum.”
That, and a 60.9 percent shooting effort in the second half, helped the Red pull away in the last 10 minutes of the ballgame.
Yesterday afternoon, Cornell fought back-and-forth with Siena — who was picked to win the MAAC and already has an upset win over then-No. 20 Stanford this season. But after nearly 39 minutes of play, nothing was decided. Two free throws from junior guard Adam Gore tied the game up at 75.
Donahue, perhaps thinking back to the Army game, went to his four-guard offensive lineup of Dale, Gore, sophomore Ryan Wittman and junior Collin Robinson, with Kreefer at the five. He rotated Battle in for defensive possessions.
Whether it was as a result of the move or not, the next possession saw the strategy pay off immediately. Wittman took his man left, created space as he spun right, then bursted to the rim and buried the go-ahead layup over Edwin Ublies.
“We were trying to run a set play and it got broken up so Ryan just took it to the basket and made an excellent move,” Battle said.
The bucket gave Cornell a lead it wouldn’t relinquish, yielding only two free throws on its way to victory.
Wittman finished with 14 points and a career-high 11 rebounds, but Dale led the way statistically with 20 points, nine boards and six helpers. Kreefer, coming off the bench for junior Alex Tyler, who had to sit early with two fouls, chipped in ten points of his own on a perfect five-for-five from the field. Combined with his Army totals, Kreefer was 13-of-15 over the last week.
More than individual performances, though, the players thought the game showed how much the team has matured in a short span.
“It was a big win for us — especially for us to be able to pull it out in crunch time,” Battle said. “We’ve really been working on that, finishing and closing games.
As the first half progressed, though, it didn’t look like the game was moving in the direction of a battle down the stretch. A putback from senior Jason Hartford put the Red up 33-23 with 5:30 left to go in the first half. Siena got to the rim and to the line to cut the lead to two. Ubiles was integral in the final stretch before the break, exploiting the smaller Red defenders for layups and short jumpers, collecting eight of his 17 points in that five minute stretch.
Still, the Red had a 42-38 lead going into the locker room.
“[Donahue said to] just keep playing hard, don’t let up,” Battle said. “At the end of the half, they went on a run and we didn’t match that run, we didn’t stop it so we thought we should be up by more than four.”
Each team matched virtually every basket in the second half, though. Neither team got ahead by more than three points for the first 15 minutes of the second half.
“I think it shows a bit of maturity on our part,” Robinson said. “We stayed within our game this time when they made a run at us. That’s what we didn’t do at Ohio, so I think we’re starting to grow together as a team.”
When Siena finally did get ahead by four with 5:11 left, Dale and Robinson responded with back-to-back 3s to put Cornell ahead yet again. Robinson said that the team’s four-guard offense gave them a lot of looks.
“There are a lot of opportunities for us because we can all do a lot of things well,” he said. “You got me and Lou who can drive in and create for ourselves, as well as for others. And then Gore and Witt are such a big threat shooting the ball, sometimes they won’t help off of them and that helps us a lot.”