One of men’s basketball head coach Steve Donahue’s favorite words this year has been “hurdle.” It perfectly represents his one-game-at-a-time mentality. It explains why — before that final buzzer sounded — he didn’t know how to comment on what winning the Ivy title means. To Donahue, each game represents a certain kind of hurdle, and until that hurdle is either cleared or not, there is no tomorrow.
Cornell’s first game against Penn this season was one of the bigger hurdles the team had faced at that point. The Red hadn’t beaten the Quakers in nine years. The Quakers were Ivy champs three years running. Cornell was returning home to high expectations after a dominating road weekend sweep of Yale and Brown. It was the first sellout in Newman Arena since 2004.
“My concern going into the week was thinking that we played so well at Yale and Brown,” Donahue said. “[I was afraid we would think] now just because we’re home, and because we’re in front of a lot of people, we’re just going to be able to beat Penn. … [The crowd and expectations] makes it more exciting, but it doesn’t make it easier.”
The campus was beginning to notice and throw its support behind the squad, and the Red didn’t disappoint. Looking back, Donahue didn’t doubt his team’s ability, but he was certainly impressed by the poise and maturity his players showed.
“I was concerned about how we would react,” he said. “Would we still have that same energy and fire? And not be tight and play loose? And that was the hurdle. They came out and played to win the whole game.”
They won to the tune of 13 points, 87-74. But it was a tight contest much of the way. The two squads traded baskets in the first half, and the Red could not put Penn away in the second half. A Quaker run seemed to counter each Red tear. At one point, Penn got it within two.
“There were points in that game [that I got worried], especially after they made their run and cut it to two,” Donahue said.
But then, coming off a hard screen, sophomore guard Ryan Wittman took a pass and, not heeding the defender in his face, immediately elevated from beyond the arc. He double pumped to create space and drained the 3.
“I think the game was over at that point,” Donahue said.
The shot spurred a 7-0 Red run, one that finally stuck. After the game, junior guard Adam Gore was asked what it meant to finally take down the perennial powerhouse Penn.
“If you are going to win championships, you have to beat the champions,” he said. “… It’s a confidence-booster as we move one more step towards our goal.”
“I do think they got great confidence from beating a team that has handled them,” Donahue said later. “They know about the streak. Just being able to do that lends some confidence.”
But for Donahue, it was more impressive that his team overcame another one of his hurdles.
“I just think this team has overcome different obstacles during the year,” Donahue said. “There were several times when I thought, I don’t know if they’re ready to do this here. Sure enough, they do it. That’s what good players do.”
That’s what champions do.