February 11, 2008

Red Breaks 18-Game Penn Losing Streak

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Cornell basketball fans packed Newman Arena to capacity on Saturday in hopes of watching the Red continue its undefeated conference season. The Red didn’t disappoint, defeating the Quakers, 87-74, behind career highs from sophomores Louis Dale and Ryan Wittman. Wittman led all scorers with 25 points — including five-of-eight shooting from the 3-point line — and Dale followed closely with 24 points, nine rebounds and four assists. The win puts the Red in the driver’s seat in the Ivy League as it is the only unbeaten squad and holds a three-game advantage over second-place Brown.
“If you are going to win championships, you have to beat the champions.” said junior guard Adam Gore, who added 14 points. “It feels good to beat them but we know we have to play them again.”
Despite the good positioning the team has, Cornell head coach Steve Donahue insisted that he doesn’t feel comfortable with the team’s stance.
“I do not [feel like we have a tighter grasp on the Ivy League], I don’t feel that way at all,” Donahue said. “I was fortunate enough to be on teams that won 48 games straight and all I can remember when I went to practice on that Monday was [former Penn head] coach [Fran] Dunphy just going after guys and guys going after each other. When you’re funneled in tunnel vision like that — about getting better and competing with each other — everything else takes care of itself.”
In addition to postseason implications, the win also brought the end of Penn’s winning streak over Cornell. Previous to Saturday’s contest, the Red had lost 18 consecutive matches to the Quakers. For Donahue, a former assistant coach for the Quakers, the win was his first against his former team. His personal streak spanned 14 games.
“Obviously we knew about [the losing streak to Penn],” Gore said. “Nobody on this team has beaten them either, so it was a big win for everybody. … It’s a confidence booster as we move one more step closer towards our goal.”
Fueled by hot 3-point shooting and a 27-of-29 performance from the free-throw line, the Red was up by as many as 15 points with ten minutes left in the contest and seemed to have the victory sealed early. The Quakers did not go quietly, though, using a full-court press to force turnovers and spur their 19-6 run to bring the contest within two, 71-69, with 4:35 left.
“It’s college basketball, guys can make shots and teams can make runs. It’s going to happen every game,” Gore said. “Last year and my freshman year, teams would make runs and we wouldn’t answer back. That’s why we didn’t win championships. I think that’s one thing we have improved at and that’s one thing good teams do. Anytime a team makes a run, you stop it, minimize the damage and make your own run.”
That’s exactly what the Red did. On the ensuing possession, Wittman dribbled up the court, used a screen at the top of the key and nailed a 3-pointer. With a defender right in his face, Wittman created space by hanging and double pumping his shot before releasing it as he came down.
“Tonight he did everything we needed to win at critical times,” Donahue said. “He took it off the dribble, he hit 3s, he rebounded. I think Ryan gets this [reputation] that he is just a shooter, [but] he is so much more than that.”
Wittman was a problem for Penn over the course of the game. In the opening possessions of the second half, Wittman nailed three consecutive 3-pointers to go on a personal 9-0 run. His efforts earned the praise of Miller.
“Our game plan is to get up close to him,” Miller said. “Pressure the heck out of him. He is the player of the year in our conference. He is a terrific, terrific player and he hit big shot after big shot. We had a few breakdowns and he hit the very difficult shots. He would be my player of the year if I had to pick today.”
Following the 3-pointer, junior Jeff Foote scored after a Penn turnover, Dale hit two free throws and Gore nailed a 3 after a pass from Foote to push the lead to 12. Despite the physical play, the Red would eventually go on to score 87 points.
“I know we gave up too many points,” Miller said. “They got into the lane too much and they don’t miss foul shots. … You can’t put them on the foul line and you know Wittman is going to make the big play down the stretch. I don’t know what you do, but we have to do a better job next time.”
A key to the Red’s success was the aggressiveness of Dale and Gore, who drew numerous fouls on the Quakers and went 21-of-22 from the free throw line.
“The coaches were telling us how aggressive they were, flying around and all that,” Gore said. “I don’t have the size to really be shooting over the top of people. They kept going for [my pump fake, though] so it gave me the opportunity to push myself into them when they are in the air and get to the free throw line.”
“Adam set the tone getting us to the foul line,” Donahue said. “Early on, we were rushing stuff and he was shot-faking, getting to the foul line. Then Lou started doing it and our big men started doing it and we end up getting to the line 29 times and we are a very good free-throw shooting team.”
The Quakers were without leading scorer Tyler Bernardini.
“He is our leading scorer and best shooter, but I am not making excuses,” Miller said. “Cornell is the best team in our league and they beat us.”