March 3, 2008

Red Captures First Ivy Title in Two Decades

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He looked unsure, uncomfortable, out of place even. Men’s basketball head coach Steve Donahue was sitting on the bench. He rarely sits on the bench. Saturday night’s game against Harvard, though, was a night for rare occurrences.
“I said to the guys, that was the hardest half I’ve ever coached. I just didn’t know what to feel,” Donahue said. “I was frustrated that we weren’t playing a little better, yet I look up and we’re up 30. I tried to sit back. As you know, I don’t sit very often. It was enjoyable to take it all in to be honest with you.”
SLIDESHOW: Click here to view a slideshow of the Harvard game!
There were so many things to take in: a twenty-year Ivy title drought ending, a second-half lead hovering around 30, the raucous crowd, the years of work to get to this point, Cornell’s history of losing in basketball.
[img_assist|nid=28464|title=Storming the court|desc=The 2007-08 Ivy League champion men’s basketball team rushes onto the court as the buzzer sounds on the Red’s title-clinching victory over Harvard on Saturday.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
“I feel like proud parent,” Donahue said. “I feel like those guys did it for me. I was along for the ride. Everything I’ve done, they took and ran with it. It is a tremendous group of kids who are close knit. It’s a talented group that’s unselfish.”
Each member of the tight bunch took it all in differently. While Donahue sat back and watched, even flashing a rare smile on the bench, sophomore Andre Wilkins danced at the end of the bench, holding up the “Cornell” printed across the front of his jersey. Senior Jason Hartford clutched a folded red banner that read “IVY LEAGUE CHAMPIONS 2008” as if it were his own child.
“Since I saw it, it hasn’t left my grasp,” said Hartford, who was honored before the contest in his last home game in a Cornell (20-5, 12-0 Ivy) jersey. “You can try taking it, but I don’t know if that would work.”
The game itself, an 86-53 victory, seemed mostly like a formality. The backcourt duo of sophomore Ryan Wittman and junior Adam Gore shot unconsciously from all angles and distances, combining for 27 points. The Crimson (8-20, 3-9) defense feared the deep ball so much it started overplaying shot fakes, allowing sophomore guard Louis Dale to bob and weave around his man and into the lane where he collected eight assists to go with 12 points.
The benefactors of Dale’s generosity were the Red’s big men, who poured in 46 points in the lane, compared to Harvard’s 18. 7-0 junior Jeff Foote displayed his mobility on both sides of the floor, collecting four blocks in the lane, while rotating out to the perimeter to challenge 3s. He also ran the floor on fast breaks and asserted himself on the block, finishing with 10 points. Frontcourt-mate Jason Hartford tallied eight points on backdoor cuts and step-out jumpers.
The game was over by halftime with Cornell leading 45-20. The Crimson was shooting 22 percent compared to the Red’s blistering 65 percent. After the teams had matched each other at 11 all, Cornell stymied Harvard’s backcourt penetration. And when the Crimson did get to the rim, its layups seemed to roll out or not find rim at all. For a team that has consistently started slow all season, Saturday was an aberration.
“Coach told us that we had to get off to a good start,” Wittman said. “We can’t get down by 10 every game and just expect to come back easily. I think we did it on the defensive end. It started last night [in a 75-59 win over Dartmouth]. They got out to a 10-point lead, but we just weren’t hitting shots. I think in the Yale and Brown games [last weekend, they got out to early leads] because we weren’t playing defense. This weekend, we did a really nice job of playing defense and tonight we just started hitting shots too.”
Straight out of the locker room, Hartford, Wittman and Dale hit three straight buckets to stretch the lead to 30, and it seemed obvious Harvard would not make a run. When Dale later got a three-point play on a slashing layup, he and Wittman just smiled at each other and exchanged a knowing high-five.
Donahue began pulling starters shortly after.
“Storm the court, storm the court,” the crowd began to chant.
The starters sat on the bench, leaning over and talking to each other, laughing and playfully punching each other — “being happy” as Dale put it. Donahue smiled and put his arm around Gore at one point.
“I was just excited and waiting for the fans to come on the court,” Dale said. “That’s all I was thinking about.”
“I didn’t really know what to expect when we won,” Foote said.
“In the event that Cornell clinches an outright Ivy League championship, fans will be invited on to the court, but only after the visiting team has left the court,” the PA announcer said during every timeout.
A loud “Boo” went up in response from the student section each time.
“I was getting chills in my body because it was a crazy atmosphere — fantastic,” Dale said.
Sitting behind the bench, Andrew Naeve ’07, the starting center on last year’s team, slid behind guys who were coming off the court and got in on the bench chatter.
“It’s the next-best thing to actually being able to do it myself,” Naeve said. “We’re still so close with these guys, though, that it’s like pretty much doing it yourself.”
Kevin App ’07, one of the captains last year, but one who rarely played, sat behind the guys on the end of the bench.
“I felt right at home because that’s where I used to sit,” App said. “Those were my guys down there — [sophomore Jon] Jacques and [sophomore] Pete [Reynolds]. So I was telling them that they had to get in the game and do me proud.”
And they did just that. The bench players went in and more than held their own. Cornell got 37 bench points while the lead bloated to 35.
“It was just people coming off the bench making plays like we’ve been doing all year,” Wittman said. “It was great, though, so much fun.”
Andre Wilkins played like a live wire, racing around the court and slashing to the hoop. He made all four of his field goals and finished with 11 points. All but two players scored. And with a crowd looking for a reason to lose it, the bench provided that too. Junior guard Conor Mullen, with only a few minutes remaining, drove the lane on a fast break. He sent his bulky, 6-5 frame into the air, cocked his hand back and tried to throw down a dunk. The ball caromed off the back iron, tough, and went straight into the air.
“When Connor tried to dunk, I was going crazy,” Dale said.
“We wanted to see that epic dunk by Conor,” Naeve said. “I told him he’s going to have to live with regret for the rest of his life. He was trying to get on SportsCenter and that would have definitely made it.”
Police lined the front of the student section with a few minutes left. The bench stood and peered up at the clock. The people on press row stored breakable items under the table.
“I’d duck and cover if I were you,” a fan in the first row said amidst more “storm the court” chants.
As the final seconds ticked off, junior Jason Battle, sporting a huge grin, spread his arms out to hold his teammates back from the court.
Then it happened.
“No words can express the feeling to that one sound of the horn,” Hartford said. “All we could do is run as fast as we could to the middle of the court and jump as high as we could to be able to share it with the people that were there with you the whole way.”
Sheer pandemonium. Fans from every corner rushed toward the bench, lifting players up on their shoulders.
“I was just so excited,” Foote said. “I had never been picked up before. … There’s really nothing like [winning the Ivy title]. I’ve never been this happy in my life. I’m really speechless.”
Surfing above the mass of hundreds of people, Foote pumped his fist in unabashed celebration.
“The crowd needs that,” he joked.
When Wittman got lifted up, the mass started chanting “MVP, MVP.” Hartford jokingly yelled, “We’re going to Disney World.”
“[We were yelling to each other] a lot of ‘You’re the man,’ ‘I love you,’ that kind of stuff,” Foote said.
“It’s just a great experience to be a part of a team that has all your friends,” Wittman said. “Going through the year, there are so many ups and downs. Finally to cap it off with this — I’m kind of at a loss to explain it.”
And before they cut down the nets, Donahue left his team with one message.
“This is their chance,” he said. “It’s a short period of time and I want them to take advantage of every opportunity. This is the result of them.”