March 9, 2009

Men's B-Ball Repeats as Ivy Champions

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“Announce the Princeton score,” fans yelled excitedly.
“Donahue doesn’t want it announced,” came the reply from press row.
But with less than two minutes left, men’s basketball head coach Steve Donahue’s wife decided it was time for him and his team to know what everyone else already did — the Red was mere minutes away from its second straight Ivy title.[img_assist|nid=35926|title=Victory!|desc=The men’s basketball team celebrates its second-straight Ivy League Championship by cutting the net.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
“I guess everyone else knew [that Princeton was losing],” Donahue said, laughing. “My wife yelled something at me, and I find out I’m the only guy that didn’t know. I was thinking since I didn’t hear anything, that Princeton had won.”
Wanting to focus more on the opponent at hand, Donahue had requested that the Princeton-Columbia score not be announced throughout the game — a normal practice at Newman Arena. A Cornell win and Princeton loss was needed for the Red to clinch the championship.
Cornell (21-9, 11-3 Ivy) took care of the winning part with a dazzling 3-point spectacle by junior Ryan Wittman, a backcourt of junior Louis Dale and freshman Chris Wroblewski who relentlessly attacked the lane and shutdown defense that kept Penn (10-17, 6-7) from getting similar penetration.
Princeton took care of the losing part, as Columbia overcame a halftime deficit to win by 14.
As the gap widened between the teams in both games, the crowd began to sense the Ivy title was approaching. After chants of “Princeton’s losing” made it clear to everyone the situation at hand, the announcer finally addressed the issue.
“Please celebrate in an orderly fashion.” The announcement could barely be heard over the din of the crowd. “… The department of athletics appreciates your support.”
But there was little order to be had.
“I was nervous,” Wroblewski said. “They all started inching forward and said Princeton lost. I had never been through one of those before. I thought I was going to get trampled.”
As the buzzer sounded a helpless policeman, feet set, arms flailing, unsuccessfully tried to fend off court-rushers.
“It’s kind of hard to top last year, but I honestly feel this is way more gratifying,” Donahue said. “This year, we understand how hard last year was. If teams now come to play you and you lose, you stumble and have to get back up. Now you’ve tested yourself.”
“Overcoming adversity, going through three losses,” Wittman said. “We really had to stick together as a group. Nobody pointed fingers when we started to lose. I really think we came together as a team and that’s what we had to do.”
Friday night showed the Red’s resiliency in a microcosm. Penn came out early and not only hung with Cornell, but had leads of four and five points throughout the first half. Donahue shook things up, bringing in two of his senior captains, Jason Battle and Brian Kreefer. Quickly, the tone of the game changed as the two scrapped and matched Penn’s energy.
“For a while there, we couldn’t stop Penn,” Donahue said. “When J [Battle] came in, I thought the game changed then. He’s all of a sudden getting in passing lanes and diving for balls, drawing charges. To me, that changed the whole feeling of the game. All of a sudden, they weren’t getting open shots.”
With 3:31 remaining in the half, Cornell took the lead for good in the midst of an eight-point run. Penn’s offense was moving in fits and starts and unable to get any penetration. Twelve of the team’s 28 shots came from behind the arc, as did 12 of the team’s 28 points by the break. The Red led 34-28.
Penn guard Harrison Gaines, who burned the Red for 20 points the last time out, was shut out in the first half on his way to a 2-for-7 night from the floor.
“We know he likes to drive, so we just wanted to stay in front of him,” Dale said. “Whenever he took a shot, we wanted to make sure we contested it. And I think we did a good job of that tonight and kept him in check.”
Cornell’s guard play fueled the miniature comeback — 29 of the squad’s 34 points at halftime came from the backcourt combination of Wittman, Dale and Wroblewski. Wroblewski was starting in place of injured junior Geoff Reeves.
Donahue said he had predicted that his guards would be able to exploit Penn through screens and penetration, and they certainly did. The bucket to put the Red up for good was one of several times Dale blew by his defender — this time with a crossover — and drew defenders to him in the lane, allowing for easy finishes by others. He finished with 13 points and four assists.
“Lou played a great game today,” Donahue said. “He’s played way better this year. He’s a way better defender and he’s shooting a higher percentage.”
The rookie Wroblewski also looked the part of a seasoned vet, finishing the game with 12 points — 10 in the first half — four assists and five rebounds.
“Unbelievable,” Wittman said. “Coming in as a freshman in this type of environment. We were kind of struggling offensively and he hit some big shots for us. … They weren’t just wide-open jumpers, he was making plays off the dribble.”
But the Red was just getting going. The squad put on a second-half shooting clinic for the 4,093 in attendance. The team shot 76 percent from the floor, including 71.4 percent from behind the arc. The Red actually shot better from the field than it did from the free throw line. Wittman was a large part of that with his game-high 25 points, including 5-of-7 from behind the line in the second half.
“We get to notice [when he’s hot] and we start finding him and he really savors that moment,” Donahue said. “Once again, he’s had an unbelievable year. I don’t know where we’d be without him.”
The big men also got into the action, with senior Jeff Foote finishing around the rim and showing a deft passing touch to the tune of a team-high five assists. Junior Alex Tyler stepped out to challenge with elbow jumpers and was also the beneficiary of some dribble penetration.
But mostly it was the Red defense on lockdown mode.
“We wanted to eliminate dribble penetration as much as we could and challenge all shots,” Dale said. “In the second half, we really did that and were able to extend the lead.”
And that, the team did. By the eight-minute mark, the lead had bloated to 20 after a Wittman 3. It was mostly a formality from there for the players and some out-of-town scoreboard watching for the fans.
When it was all over, there was court storming, Foote pumping his fist while getting hoisted above the crowd, “We Are The Champions” playing — all the elements of an Ivy title celebration. But this year’s title, according to the team, was less about the exuberance of finally winning as it was about learning how to respond to failure. Accordingly, the postgame celebration wasn’t as raucous, didn’t last as long and wasn’t as packed as last year’s fracas.
“We are a way better basketball team than last year — individually, collectively,” Donahue said. “I know that’s hard to realize, but we’re better prepared to play high-level competition. … We played better this year statistically and everything else. Obviously, we slipped and fell, but I think that makes us better as well.”
Wroblewski — who was still an Ivy title novice going into the game — was able to simply enjoy himself, however.
“It was fun,” he said with a smile. “I look forward to three more of those.”