PHILADELPHIA, Pa. –– Forget lucky No. 7, the men’s basketball team wasted no time in making it eight in a row, hanging on for a 78-75 win over La Salle (7-5) on Tuesday afternoon. Ryan Wittman led both teams with a career-high 34 points, surpassing John Bajusz ’87 for the most points in Cornell history with 1,667. The senior forward also added six rebounds, three assists and two steals while shooting 4-for-9 from beyond the arc.
However, true to the team-first mentality that head coach Steve Donahue has instilled in his players, when asked by a Philadelphia reporter what his reaction was to becoming Cornell’s all-time leading scorer, Wittman responded, “Doesn’t matter. All that matters is that we got the ‘W’ tonight; I didn’t even know [about setting the record] until you told me.”
The Red (10-2) was forced to compensate for the absence of two starters –– senior tri-captain Alex Tyler and senior guard Louis Dale. Both sat out Tuesday’s game with injuries and are listed as day-to-day. That said, compensate is exactly what Donahue’s squad did, thanks to a total team effort that featured scoring from nine different Red players.
“They made a couple different runs at us,” said Wittman, who was responsible for Cornell’s last eight points –– six of which came from the free throw line following a string of intentional fouls. “We’re getting kind of used to playing those games at the end, where we’re trying to hold on to a five or six-point lead. We’ve been executing well down the stretch.”
Foote and sophomore guard Chris Wroblewski chipped in 11 points apiece, with Wroblewski also contributing six assists. Junior forward Adam Wire had four points and led both teams with nine rebounds, while senior forward Mark Coury registered five points, three boards, a block and a steal.
The Explorers saw all five of its starters score in double-figures, led by senior guard Rodney Green with 19. Green also collected seven rebounds and led both teams with seven assists and three steals, as well as seven turnovers. As has been their Achilles’ heel all season, the Explorers struggled from the charity stripe, shooting just 7-of-13, or 53.8 percent, for the game.
“We’re not good enough to beat a good team right now,” said La Salle head coach John Giannini, attributing his team’s loss to “us playing poorly in the first half [and] Wittman coming through for them in the second. … [He] did some very impressive things to help them win.”
La Salle secured its first lead of the game on a dunk by Green 18 seconds into the contest, but Wittman would convert one of two from the free throw line to get his team on the board. Wroblewski followed up a layup by freshman center Aaric Murray with his first of three 3’s on the day to knot things at four. A pair of Cornell turnovers led to easy baskets for the Explorers, though the Red drew even at eight thanks to a jumper from Foote and layup by Wire following an offensive rebound by senior tri-captain Jon Jaques off a Wroblewski miss. From there, both teams proved evenly matched, as a trey from senior guard Geoff Reeves handed Cornell a temporary lead at 13-11.
Green responded with a jumper to cut the deficit to one, as did senior forward Andre Wilkins, who restored the Red’s advantage to three with his first points of the season that resulted from a 15-foot jumper of his own.
The Explorers would tie it once more with 11:11 to play in the half on a 3-pointer by senior forward Yves Mekongo, until an offensive rebound field goal from Wire put Cornell ahead for good. The Red added to its lead with back-to-back baskets from Coury, a 3-point play by Wittman, and two free throws from freshman Josh Figini –– his first collegiate points. A buzzer-beating trey by Wroblewski proved the final nail in the coffin, sending both teams into the locker room with the visitors on top, 38-27.
“We lost the game in the first half,” acknowledged Giannini.
Meanwhile, Donahue credited his bench with providing the necessary momentum to eventually close out the win.
“I give a lot of credit to the minutes that we got from [junior guard] Max Groebe and Andre Wilkins and Mark Coury, and even Josh Figini,” he said. “We kept our lead and then some at the end of the first half, which I thought was huge.”
The Red shot 43.8 percent overall, while limiting the Explorers to just 10-of-28 and 33.3 percent from 3-point range for the half. Cornell also had the advantage in rebounds, 21-20, despite Foote only seeing seven minutes of playing time due to foul trouble. La Salle committed 10 turnovers, twice as many as its opponent.
After hitting just 4-of-11 in the first 20 minutes, Wittman exploded for a 23-point spectacle in the second frame, shooting 3-for-5 from outside.
“When he’s feeling it like that, you just have to feed him the ball,” Wroblewski said. “When he’s putting on a show like that, I’m just along for the ride.
“Open or not, I think he was hitting everything tonight.”
“You have to find ways to score a basket, especially when you lose a guy like Lou, who does so much for us against a team like this,” Donahue added. “Our guys, they hunt him down, they find Ryan.”
Not willing to go quietly, Green scored his team’s first points of the second half, before a layup by Wroblewski reestablished Cornell’s lead at 11. However, the Explorers used a 10-0 run –– capped off by a 3-pointer from senior forward Kimmani Barrett –– to cut the deficit to one with 16:05 to play. Things continued to get dicey as both teams went shot-for-shot –– that is until Cornell manufactured a mini-run of its own.
Reeves put the Red on top, 47-43, with a layup, and Wittman followed up with a turnaround jumper. Twenty-three seconds later, at 12:15, Wittman released a shot from downtown that, after hitting every part of the rim, didn’t appear as though it was actually going to drop in. As it happened, physics was on the Red’s side, and Wittman’s surprising 3 put Cornell ahead by nine, 52-43.
“I did have a couple lucky rolls like that,” he said with a laugh. “I guess sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good.”
The visiting team managed to sustain a fairly comfortable lead for the rest of the half, until a layup by Green with 1:16 left on the clock brought the Explorers within three, and made things a little too close for comfort for the Red.
In dire need of a rebound that could potentially initiate a crucial possession with time expiring, La Salle was left with no choice but to intentionally foul. Although obviously faced with limited options, it can easily be said that the Explorers simply went after the wrong guy: Wittman didn’t miss a beat from the free throw line, and his clutch shooting ensured that there would be no lasting damage from Barrett’s buzzer-beating trey, as Cornell held on for a 78-75 victory.
“It’s just fun to coach a group of guys who don’t care how it gets done, [and who] play the game the right way,” Donahue said. “Every single guy who comes in basically does what you ask, and then some.”
The Red returns to Ithaca for a New Year’s Eve matinée with Penn State Erie-Behrend, and then another against Bryant (0-13) on Jan. 2. If Cornell emerges victorious from both these games, as appears likely on paper, the team will put its 10-game winning streak on the line against No. 1 Kansas (12-0) on Jan. 6.
Original Author: Alex Kuczynski-Brown