March 6, 2009

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You can go big or go home. The men’s basketball team has the opportunity to do both, as the last weekend of the Red’s regular season will be at Newman Arena — against perennial contender Penn tonight, followed by a Princeton team that has returned from obscurity to hold the No. 2 record in the Ancient Eight.
With the Ivy League’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament on the line, there are several scenarios for the way this weekend can play out. Even with a win tonight against the Quakers (9-16, 5-6 Ivy), Cornell needs a simultaneous Princeton loss at Columbia to clinch the outright championship — that, or the Red (19-9, 9-3) needs to get its revenge the next day when the Tigers (12-12, 7-4) come to town.
The Red had a perfect 4-0 conference record and a 19-game Ivy winning streak when the team arrived in Princeton, N.J., early last month. But the Tiger defense shut down the visitors from the start of the Feb. 6 game, and Princeton came out with the win, a 61-41 blowout that was actually closer than the score implied.
“They played tough defense, and our offense became stagnant,” said senior Jason Battle. “Once they stopped our initial surge, our offense slowed down.”[img_assist|nid=35871|title=You only got one shot|desc=Senior Adam Gore (23) will look to finish up his collegiate career strong.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
Cornell rebounded the next day with a 88-73 win over Penn, but the damage was done.
While the Red has held opponents to a respectable 47.3 shooting percentage from the field, the Tiger defense has limited opposing teams to 39.4 percent and less than 60 points per game. However, Cornell’s defense has actually played slightly better against Ancient Eight competitors than Princeton’s — the Red holds Ivy League teams to 39.4 percent from the field, compared to 40.4 by the Tigers. If Princeton’s strategy in the teams’ last matchup holds, Cornell’s vaunted offense (74.2 points per game) will face some intense pressure from the visitors, making scorers such as junior Ryan Wittman work harder for their shots.
“We need to keep being aggressive and playing our game and just stick to our usual style of basketball,” Battle said.
Yet Princeton isn’t the only threat this weekend. Penn tallied a 62-55 overtime win at Princeton on Feb. 17.
The Quakers won the Ivy title not so long ago, in the 2006-07 season. Now a Penn loss at Newman Arena tonight could potentially hand Cornell the trophy and the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament that comes with it.
The Red, however, will have to contend with a feisty Quaker lineup. Penn’s top scorer Tyler Bernardini (13.7 points per game), rebounding leader Jack Eggleston (6.0 per game) and court general Harrison Gaines (10.3 points per game) are all only sophomores.
Taking into account the assist-savvy freshman Zack Rosen (the conference leader with 5.1 helpers per game), the Quakers sport an extremely youthful and energetic lineup. Gaines finished with 20 points when Cornell and Penn played at the Palestra last month.
“Our goal is just to contain [Gaines] and play team defense as usual,” Battle said.
Princeton has a similar situation — freshman Doug Davis and sophomore Dan Mavraides are the two Tigers averaging in double figures. The Red held Davis to two points in their last meeting, but four other players reached double figures.
Princeton is coming off a doubly successful home weekend against Brown and Yale last weekend.
Over the conference season, Princeton has been particularly consistent in that it has only split a weekend once, winning or losing twice every other weekend. This is one weekend when a Princeton split would be just fine with the Cornell crowd, as long as the Tigers lose tomorrow night at Newman Arena.
“I wish we had gotten the Ivy title a few weeks ago, but I can’t think of anything better than to go out at home, in our last home game, as a champion,” Battle said.
“It would be the perfect scenario.”