March 12, 2008

Goal of Ivy Title Finally Realized

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During the 2005-06 season, forward Shannan Scarselletta — also a Sun columnist — stepped out on a limb and predicted an Ivy League title for the women’s basketball team sometime in the near future. Two years and a handful of weeks later, Scarselletta, along with the rest of the team, stood on a ladder in Newman Arena and cut down the net to celebrate their share of the title.
“It’s what you dream of. It’s what the goal has been since I got here,” said head coach Dayna Smith. “It’s wonderful to be able to see the players experience that, and to hear the excitement of the alumni and everyone who supported the program. I’m extremely proud and happy for everyone that’s ever cared and played for Cornell women’s basketball.”
On the strength of a 19-8 regular season and an 11-3 record in Ivy play, the Red brought home the first Ivy title in team history. However, Cornell’s share of the title was not easily won; after being on the wrong end of a two-loss road trip just over a week ago, the Red needed an upset of then-No. 1 Harvard to claw its way back into first place.
“It was a tough week after losing to Harvard and Dartmouth to refocus and get ourselves back on track basketball-wise and emotionally and to go out and play the way we did,” Smith said. “Obviously we needed Harvard to lose and when they did, it gave the team a second chance to verify all the hard work and how important it is to focus on the moment at hand and what we could control. The team did a great job of doing that last week and staying focused for Princeton and Penn. We were able to take care of our business.”
But even after suffering what seemed like a disastrous setback to its title hopes at the hands of the Green and the Crimson, the players did not lose faith.[img_assist|nid=28767|title=Together as one|desc=While only the 13 players currently on the roster will compete in New York City next weekend, it took generations of women to get the program to the top of the Ivy League.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
“We definitely thought we still had a shot. … All throughout this week of practice we knew that we had to take care of business and hopefully we’d have a little luck on our side.”
That luck showed up in the form of a 64-58 Bulldog upset over the Crimson which handed the Red a share of the title. That title represents more than just a possible postseason berth.
“For people who are in the program or work for the program or support the program, I think it means so much to those people,” Smith said. “It’s been so fun to watch and so fun to hear.”
The team’s victory has united individuals from different corners of campus, as well as different generations of Cornell women’s basketball. Smith said that she has received emails from “all the players from the 70s and the 80s and 90s and 2000s and they all feel like they’re part of it and that’s very important to us.”
In addition to reconnecting alumni, the additional publicity for the program might help with attracting potential recruits.
“As far as the future of the program, if it can help us with recruiting, then great,” Smith said. “It’s been something that, with recruiting, we’ve wanted to emphasize that we’re really trying to build something here; we’re trying to build a winner and that’s something that the current members of the team committed to and they bought into and they dedicated themselves to and so for the next class of recruits, we hope that they would want to continue that and take it to a new level.”
There was one point this season that Smith pointed to as the defining moment when the team realized that it could reach that new level.
“There was a moment early in the season before Ivy play even began. It was during our Cornell Classic when we played Bowling Green. We went into halftime tied with them and they had been in the Sweet-16 the year before,” Smith said.
The Red lost that game, 70-54, but put up a good fight throughout the contest, especially in the first half. Junior forward Jeomi Maduka scored 16 points and grabbed nine rebounds and junior Moina Snyder added 10 boards. More impressive than the numbers, however, was the way that the Red offense started to mesh.
“Just the way we were competing and the way we were clicking, the way that the team just started gelling together, especially offensively, and then carrying that over to the defensive end,” Smith said. “After the game, I felt like ‘OK there’s something special that could happen with this group if they just continue to improve every day.’”
“That was a big-time opponent that we played,” said sophomore guard Virginia McMunigal. “Even though we lost, we did a lot of nice things and it was a great starting point and we did work well together that game. Even though we lost we took a lot from it and were able to push ourselves through the rest of the non-conference season and then the [Ivy League games].”
The Red did indeed push through a season that saw numerous impressive individual performances — sophomore guard Lauren Benson set the school record for assists in a season and Maduka eclipsed the 1,000-point milestone — as well as team accomplishments — the Red set a program record for wins and captured its first Ivy League title.
“It’s what their goal was at the beginning of the year,” Smith said. “It was the only goal we had as a team and being able to go out there and accomplish it is very gratifying for them.”
“It’s a representation of our hard work as a team,” McMunigal said. “We said at the start of the season that it was our goal to win the Ivy League title and being able to accomplish that and to have it happen in such an exciting way like that… it was a great experience.”