March 12, 2008

Cornell Clinches First Ivy League Title in 20 Years

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After the yelling ceased, after the net was carefully cut, after the hugging turned into handshakes and “I love you, man,” became “Good game,” there was nothing left but satisfied smiles and relaxed conversation.
It was about half an hour after the men’s basketball team had clinched the Ivy League title. What was just recently a theoretical concept was now a reality. Still, the notion of winning it was certainly not concrete.
“That was as an emotional, exciting, exhilarating atmosphere as I’ve ever been around,” said head coach Steve Donahue a few days later. “Not even close. And it probably has a lot to do with the fact that everyone is very hungry for a championship. … That was an incredible feeling. I don’t know if we’ll be fortunate enough to duplicate it again. I’ve never been through something like that.”
For Donahue, winning the Ivy League title meant eighteen years of hard work had finally paid off. The first 10 were spent as an assistant at Penn, and the last eight passed bringing Cornell from the basement of the Ivy League to a team that Dartmouth head coach Terry Dunn called better than some of the Penn teams from the beginning of the decade (Penn went undefeated in Ivy play in 2002-03).
For Jason Hartford, the only senior on the team, an Ivy championship meant a full season of health for the first time since transferring to Cornell from Chemeketa Community College three years ago. Offseason surgery, multiple injuries, redshirting a year because of a broken bone in his foot — all could be reasons to be proud of making it all the way back to contribute on an Ivy championship team. Hartford was just proud to have his parents watch him play on senior night.
“The biggest thing was having my family here,” Hartford said. “This is the first time that they were able to be on campus. And just to have them here with the crowd and the atmosphere. Just to even have the chance to clinch the Ivy championship and them to be a part of it was great. The fact that we actually won is unreal.”
“Jason Hartford is the luckiest guy ever to get hurt,” said Andrew Naeve ’07, making fun of Hartford’s super-senior status.
Naeve was an All-Conference player last year as a senior, but came back into town for the last four home games to witness what he had helped build as a player.
“We’re still so close with these guys, though, that it’s like pretty much doing it yourself,” Naeve said.
While Hartford came back from multiple injuries and Naeve came back from Finland where he was playing professionally, perhaps the biggest comeback of them all was junior Khaliq Gant. Just over two years ago, Gant suffered a neck injury in practice that left him temporarily paralyzed. Gant regained most of his movement and returned as a full time student in the fall of 2006, but has been sidelined from strenuous basketball activity since.
When Gant climbed the ladder to cut down his portion of the net, he got one of the biggest uproars from the masses piled onto the court.
“That caught me,” Donahue said. “Everybody is so proud of what he’s done. He’s an inspiration for a lot of people just thinking about what he went through and how he reacted to it. But I’m not surprised. He was so great through the whole ordeal.”
“It’s just such a great feeling,” Gant said. “It’s just something I’ve dreamed of, to cut down a net after winning a championship. I didn’t even notice [the cheer], though. Maybe what I’ve gone through symbolizes the rise to the top our team has taken and setting a goal and then achieving it.”