The Brown men’s basketball team sat with their arms interlocked on the bench, leaning forward. Across the court, the stands swayed back and forth under the weight of a packed Cornell student section, making it hard to stand at times. Students in the first few rows brought Brown rosters and heckled the visitors. The noise, at points, was deafening. It had all the makings of a college basketball classic — five second-half lead changes, double-digit leads by each team, an Ivy League title in the balance.
“I thought it was a great college basketball game,” said Cornell head coach Steve Donahue. “It was fun to coach, and I’m sure it was fun to play in and watch.”[img_assist|nid=28154|title=View from the top|desc=Junior center Jeff Foote (1) and the Red are in control of its own destiny in its pursuit of its first Ivy League championship since the 1987-88 season.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
And when the gym had emptied and everyone had gone home, the score remained — Cornell 74, Brown 65. A lead overcome, stifling defense that didn’t allow a Brown field goal for the final 8:45 of regulation. The win meant that Cornell (17-5, 10-0 Ivy) needs only a combined two wins and Brown (15-8, 7-2) losses to clinch the Ivy League title.
It didn’t always seem like it would be a happy ending for Cornell, though. The scoreboard told a different story midway through the first half — Brown 25, Cornell 13. The 12-point deficit was the largest Cornell had faced since its Jan. 6 matchup with No. 5 Duke. Sophomores Ryan Wittman and Louis Dale — the Red’s two leading scorers on the season — were on their way to a collective zero points at half time. The duo finished with identical 2-for-10 shooting nights.
“There’s a lot of pressure when you play in front of such a big crowd because you want to play great,” Donahue said. “You want everybody to enjoy the experience, then all of a sudden here comes a team playing out of their minds. We honestly might have gotten a little tight.”
Brown was playing well, with its explosive backcourt duo of Damon Huffman and Mark McAndrew combining for 18 first-half points (and 37 for the game). Brown’s crisp execution and ball rotation found Huffman open looks and he drained 3-of-4 from behind the arc in the first stanza.
Cornell threw the ball away on offense a few times, hesitated on a few more passes, and struggled to get the big men in position on the block.
“I thought there were about three or four plays where [Brown] could have got the ball and we could have said ‘Oh, this isn’t our night. We’re going to let down the fans,’ Donahue said. “… What we did was outhustle them on four or five plays and even though the ball didn’t fall, you could tell we weren’t going to quit.”
The Red kept at it, and as soon as Brown’s lead swelled to 12, the margin began to deteriorate behind the quick-release shooting of junior guard Adam Gore. After Friday night’s 85-65 win against Yale, Donahue said that he thought Gore had a renewed confidence in himself. Saturday night, it showed.
Gore hit 4-of-5 3s in the first half. On another attempt, he drew a foul and hit all three free throws — 15 points on six shots. While Cornell struggled being decisive with its shots, Gore rose up every time he seemed to have a sliver of daylight — and made it. He finished with a team-high 18 points on the night.
While Gore drew his team to within two at halftime, 33-31, it wasn’t Gore’s sharp-shooting that propelled the Red past, and ahead, of the Bears in the second half. Sophomore Geoff Reeves benefited from a Brown defense focused on stopping Wittman and Dale. He hit all five of his shots, including four from behind the arc, for 14 points — well above his season average of 3.4.
“Because they know Ryan and Lou are great scorers, they’re going to look off of them,” Reeves said. “That got other people shots tonight. If they’re keying in on them, it’s going to give us open shots. … No pressure on me, just to knock it down.”
Easier said than done for many.
“[Reeves] is not afraid of the limelight,” Donahue said. “He’ll go out and make plays. … Like he said, ‘Well, if I’m open I’ll shoot it.’ Well, you still could miss. He doesn’t think that way, though, he just goes out and makes plays.”
Donahue also had a message for his team at half time. It wasn’t a new message, but it’s one that Donahue has consistently pointed to as the reason for his team’s improved play during its 12-game winning streak.
“Coach [Donahue] stressed at halftime that we needed to step up our defense,” said junior Jeff Foote, who finished with 13 points and eight boards. “He wanted us to play our best defensive half of the year. We really answered that because we knew our defense was creating our offense. Once we got a couple of turnovers, our momentum started to build. We felt like we could really guard these guys, and we did.”
Brown only shot 33.3 percent in the second half, down from 56.5 percent in the first stanza. Huffman and McAndrew, despite still supplying the offense, went a combined 2-for-9 from long range in the second half.
A large part of the Red’s improved half-court defense has been the shot — and pass — altering arms of the 7-0 Foote, who joined the team in December after sitting out a year due to NCAA transfer regulations.
“Jeff Foote surprises me everyday,” Donahue said. “I think the thing that takes me back, in particular, is the poise that he shows. He’s never [really] played college basketball up until December. This is game [No.] 12 or 13 for him and he looks like a four-year vet out there. His poise is what amazes me the most.”
Foote brought his typical boisterous energy to the game. Replacing senior Jason Hartford to start the second half, Foote hit a contested layup on the first second-half possession to tie it at 33, then put in the easy leaner when his defender fell down two trips later.
While the inside play allowed Reeves even more open looks — all of which he capitalized on — it was the Red’s collective hustle that kept the Bears from getting away from Cornell, despite five second-half lead changes.
“Coach [Donahue] always preaches that we are the team that gets the hustle plays,” Reeves said. “It’s like a 3-pointer going down — it’s a momentum killer. It gets them on their heels a little bit.”
And it brought the packed Newman Arena crowd to its feet as well, particularly on one play that capped a 7-1 run to put the Red up for good.
Leading 64-59 with under three minutes to go, Foote spun into the lane and put up a twisting hook shot. It fell short and the rebound went to Brown. The ball came lose, however, and a scrum ensued. With several players reaching down for it, Wittman dove to the ground and batted the ball out to Dale who found Foote under the basket for an authoritative dunk. Foote ran back down the court signalling ‘raise the roof’ with his hands.
“[It felt] really good,” Foote said, laughing. “I was really excited.”
It was one of Dale’s nine assists.
“He flew his body in there how many times?” Donahue said. “He doesn’t get credit for that. You can see he’s doing whatever he can throwing his body around. I thought he did a great job defensively.”
After such a big win, Donahue put things in perspective.
“This is another huge step for our program, but we have a couple more steps to finish,” he said.