January 21, 2008

Cornell Puts Forth Solid Effort but Falls to Duke

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Durham N.C. — The men’s basketball team gave the Duke Blue Devils all they could handle on Jan. 10, leading by as many as three points with 6:25 left in the first half and never allowing the No. 8 team in the nation to pull away until the closing minutes of the contest. Duke eventually won, 81-67, in front of a raucous crowd at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
“We played one of our better games tonight,” said Cornell head coach Steve Donahue. “We were very hyped up for this game, and I think we went out there and competed.”
Donahue’s celebrtiy coaching counterpart agreed with his assessment of the Red’s performance.
“We played against a really good basketball team tonight,” said Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski. “They were very well-coached and poised. I can see why they were picked to win the Ivy League. … I have nothing but admiration for the way they played.”
Sophomore Ryan Wittman led Cornell (6-5) with 13 points while junior center Jeff Foote racked up 10 points and seven rebounds.
The Red’s feisty defensive play and timely shooting kept the Blue Devils’ lead in single figures for most of the second half and limited Duke to 45 percent shooting from the field. Cornell also spread the ball around offensively, with seven players scoring between six and 13 points on 46 percent shooting overall.
Senior DeMarcus Nelson led the Blue Devils (11-1) — playing their first game in 17 days — with a game-high 23 points while freshman phenom Kyle Singler added 14 points and eight rebounds.
“DeMarcus is our leader, and he comes to play every night,” Singler said.
Although Duke won the tip and Nelson drilled a 3-pointer just 8 seconds into the game, the Red responded with two defensive stops. On the following offensive possession, junior Adam Gore beat his man and found classmate Brian Kreefer alone next to the basket for a layup. By the first media timeout, Duke’s lead was merely 7-6. Sophomore Brian Zoubek ignited the Cameron Crazies with a ferocious dunk, and Nolan Smith connected on a shot beyond the arc to extend the Blue Devils’ lead to 16-8.
As would be the story throughout the game, however, Cornell refused to give in, and the squad fought back with a thrilling 13-4 run to claim its first lead of the game, 24-22. Wittman led the charge with a pair of treys, and senior Jason Hartford scored on an uncontested layup to take the lead for the Red. After a Duke field goal, Wittman drilled yet another 3-pointer to send the Cornell bench and cheering section into a frenzy, giving the Red a 27-24 lead with 6:25 to play in the first half.
A “Let’s go Duke” chant from the increasingly nervous home crowd seemed to give the Blue Devils a lift, as Nelson connected on a free throw and sophomore Jon Scheyer rattled home a three to take the lead for good, 28-27.
The lead quickly ballooned to 10 as Duke finished the first half on a 11-3 run to head into the break with a 41-32 advantage. The most memorable play of the run was an alley-oop from junior Greg Paulus to sophomore Gerald Henderson, who soared over Cornell defenders to slam it home with authority.
“We played well in stretches tonight but their run at the end of the first half hurt us,” Wittman said. “That’s where the game was lost.”
Cornell stormed out of the gates to start the second half, scoring five consecutive points in 50 seconds to cut the Duke lead to four, 41-37. Gore accounted for three of those pints when he was fouled on a 3-point attempt and made all three free-throws. That was as close as Cornell would get the rest of the contest, with Duke asserting its athletic superiority on an 11-2 run. Singler led the charge with five points to help the Blue Devils increase their lead to a game-high 13 points, 52-39.
Nevertheless, Foote’s unexpected behind-the-back pass to sophomore Louis Dale and the center’s dunk the following possession kept Cornell in the game.
“I thought Jeff played great,” Donahue said. “He runs well for a 7-footer and is a very active player. Considering that he hasn’t played basketball in two and a half years and has 100 games left in his career, I expect him to get better.”
With Duke leading by 15 with 12:04 to play, the Red once again showed its grittiness by exploding for seven straight points. Wittman answered a three-pointer by Paulus with a runner in the lane, Gore drilled a shot from beyond the arc and sophomore Louis Dale hit a runner of his own during the run.
Gore and Paulus exchanged 3-pointers the next two possessions to make the score 62-54 with 9:19 left. The two teams then traded baskets for the next seven minutes as the Duke lead never surpassed 13 and never shrunk below eight. The deciding factor in holding off the Red down the stretch was the Blue Devils’ dominance on the boards, accumulating a 25-13 advantage in the second half overall as well as 9-5 advantage on the offensive glass.
“Cornell is a good team,” Paulus said. “They did a very good job fighting the whole game. … I think they have a chance to win [the Ivy League].”
With 26 seconds remaining in the game and the score 78-67, Donahue finally threw in the towel and lifted all of his starters. The players left to a nice ovation from the crowd —particularly the Cornell section behind the Red bench — for a great effort against one of the nation’s best teams.
After the game, Donahue acknowledged the large Cornell contingent at the game.
“We have a terrific group of alumni in this area, and we were very excited to play in this type of environment,” he said. “They were terrific the whole game in supporting us.”
Wittman commented that the Red’s solid performance against Duke meant little to their chances to win an Ivy League title.
“Just because we played well here doesn’t mean we will in the future,” he said. “We have to keep getting better.”