January 21, 2010

Men’s Basketball Nearly Upsets No. 1 Kansas, But Falls 71-66

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Against an undefeated Kansas team that has made a habit of embarrassing its opponents by as many as 30 points, the men’s basketball team came within five of pulling off an historic upset for the ages that would have ended the nation’s longest home winning streak at 50.

Powered by senior forward Ryan Wittman’s 15 points on 4-of-7 shooting from beyond the arc, combined with a gutsy defensive effort that held the Jayhawks to 40.7 percent overall and prevented any big scoring runs, unranked Cornell (12-3) sent shock waves through the sports world as it led No. 1 Kansas (14-0), 41-38, at halftime –– the only team to do so all season. The Jayhawks had been limiting their opponents to 58.1 points per game; on Wednesday night, they surrendered 41 in the first half alone.

“That’s the best team we’ve played this year,” said Kansas head coach Bill Self in a press conference after the game.

As a whole, the Red shot 53.8 percent in the first 20 minutes and was 6-of-13 from 3-point range, managing to convert on nearly every open look. Cornell also held the advantage in rebounds for the majority of the half, though the Jayhawks eventually managed to pull even at 15.

“We had the lead for most of the game and I felt that we played very good basketball throughout the game. Our guys gave a tremendous effort on the defensive end and for the most part we were very good on the offensive end as well,” said Cornell head coach Steve Donahue. “I thought that Kansas was fired up to play and they respected us.”

Both teams’ centers –– senior tri-captain Jeff Foote and senior Cole Aldrich –– found themselves in foul trouble early, though Foote still managed eight points and collected three rebounds for the half. He would finish second on the Red with 12 points, six rebounds and a block, while Aldrich –– a so-called “double-double machine” –– notched 13 points, but remained one shy with nine rebounds.

“I tried to come out early and establish myself because I thought I had some advantages,” Foote said.

Cornell came out of the locker room showing no signs of relinquishing the momentum, cruising to a game-high eight-point lead with 17:22 to play, as Kansas went seven minutes without a field goal. However, the Jayhawks soon showed why they have deservedly spent the past eight weeks atop the Associated Press college basketball poll, in a comeback effort led by senior guard Sherron Collins, who exploded for 19 points in the second frame en-route to a career-high 33 to lead both teams.

Trailing 58-52 with just over eight minutes to play, Kansas went on an 11-4 run to go up 63-60. However, the Red refused to go quietly, as senior guard Louis Dale –– coming off the bench for the first time all season –– scored on a backdoor layup, and Foote added a short jumper to put the visiting team on top, 64-63, with 50 seconds remaining.

“We had a lot of optimism on our team throughout the game and we had the lead with a minute to go, but you have to tip your hat to Kansas. They found a way to win and that is why they are the number one team in the country,” Foote said.

Although Kansas shooters struggled throughout the contest from the charity stripe, Collins was able to right things for his team –– converting a 3-point play to take back the lead before draining 3-of-4 free throws in the last 25 seconds.

While neither the Red nor the Jayhawks seemed able to find their groove from the floor –– shooting just 34.5 and 31.8 percent, respectively, for the half –– Kansas was able to capitalize on Cornell’s eight turnovers and put up seven points off the TO’s, compared to zero for the Red.

With 12.8 seconds to play, Wittman went up for a 3, as fans and commentators alike undoubtedly flashed back to his overtime heroics against Davidson in late December. However, there would be no collective feeling of déjà vu, as Kansas freshman Xavier Henry came down with the rebound off the miss and was intentionally fouled by Foote. Henry, who finished second on the team with 14 points, converted both opportunities from the line to hand the Jayhawks a hard-fought 71-66 win.

“I may have rushed that last shot and we may have been able to get something better later if I had not shot,” Wittman, who finished with a team-high 24 points, acknowledged.

Cornell shot 43.6 percent for the game, and was 9-for-26 from 3-point range. The Red also had some free throw trouble of its own, making just 9-of-14, or 64.3 percent, from the charity stripe. Kansas, meanwhile, overcame a season-low 36.7 percent shooting night, and managed to up its free throw percentage to 77.8 for the game thanks to clutch performances from the line late in the second half. The Jayhawks were 7-for-15 from outside, with three of those treys coming from Henry.

After missing three games with an injured leg, Dale had 10 points and five rebounds off the bench, while sophomore guard Chris Wroblewski contributed nine points, five rebounds and four assists. With Foote in early foul trouble, senior forward Mark Coury played 24 minutes and certainly made his presence known, notching two points, seven rebounds, two assists and two steals. Senior guard Geoff Reeves –– a Burlington, Kan. native –– had three points and three steals in his homecoming.

“We did everything we can except win the basketball game,” Donahue said.

Despite the outcome, Cornell left little doubt as to its ability to contend on the national stage and go head-to-head with the powerhouses of college basketball –– with one ESPN commentator remarking, “the seven letters you remember as you’re filling out your [NCAA tournament] bracket –– CORNELL.”

Original Author: Sun Staff