Ten minutes after his team dominated the overtime period against Penn to win its second straight Ivy League game, Cornell men’s basketball first-year head coach Bill Courtney couldn’t help but crack a smile to reporters as he walked out of the locker room. It is hard to blame him considering Cornell had lost nine games by five points or fewer on the season — now 10, after the Red’s hard-fought two-point home loss to league-leading Princeton on Saturday.
Most people wouldn’t call a 2-2 run over four games a breakthrough, but for Cornell (6-16, 2-6 Ivy League), it certainly is. Had the Red not collapsed with a 10-point lead in the final two minutes against Yale on Feb. 4 and had it been able to hit a few more shots to maintain a six-point second-half advantage to upset the Tigers, the team would be on a four-game winning streak and have a .500 Ivy record — something unforeseeable two-and-a-half weeks ago.
Cornell hasn’t necessarily turned its season around because players like junior guard and tri-captain Chris Wroblewski, junior guard Andrew Ferry and sophomore forward Errick Peck have suddenly picked up their games.
Quick test for casual Cornell basketball fans; who are Jake Matthews, Miles Asafo-Adjei and Josh Figini?
Matthews is a freshman guard, Asafo-Adjei is a sophomore guard and Figini is a sophomore forward. All three players, along with Wroblewski and Peck, have started the past four games — Courtney’s longest stretch using the same starting lineup of the season, which has consisted of nine different arrangements. Courtney believes the young players are at the center of the team’s changed attitude, atmosphere and performance of the last two weekends.
“They give us energy to start the game and that’s what we really need,” he said.
“Our improvement has come from playing hard every possession,” Asafjo-Adjei said.
After starting the first five games of the season, the sophomore has been reinserted into the starting five to get the opposing team out of its comfort zone from the tip.
“My role is to pick up full court and make the other point guard speed up. Coach trusts me to bring energy and defense, and hopes I can help us get out in transition,” he added.
Courtney and the Red have also benefitted from increased minutes and production from several bench players, like former walk-on and sophomore guard Johnathan Gray and sophomore forward Eitan Chemerinski.
Ever since seeing a mid-season dip in his playing time, Gray has been an integral part of the Red offense, averaging 10.3 points and 2.5 assists per game over the last four contests, while shooting 50 percent from 3-point range.
“I just know coach doesn’t even care that I was a walk-on — he treats me as he would any other player,” Gray said. “He knows I’m bringing energy both offensively and defensively, and that helps our team coming off the bench.”
Chemerinski, who until recently was primarily known for his Rubik’s Cube abilities, averaged 5.8 points and 3.0 rebounds per game the last five contests and is shooting 63 percent from the floor on the season.
“I’m glad to have the opportunity to play and hustle as much as I can,” Chemerinski said. “I just try to go out and defend and get rebounds and help the team in every way I can.”
Despite the 181-73 edge in points the Cornell bench had over its opponents in the last four games combined, the Red knows the inexperienced but energetic starters have set the tone for the whole team.
“I think the energy of the whole team is elevated from [the play] of the starters,” Figini said.
“We are playing more confidently and aggressively,” Chemerinski added. “We’re coming together as a unit and it’s showing.”
After losing its head coach and seven graduated players from last year, Cornell faced a giant learning curve this season. For months Courtney scratched and clawed to find a dependable rotation to shrink the curve and it appears he may have found the right five to open games.
Seventeen minutes into the game at Brown on Feb. 5, the Red led, 42-33. Cornell jumped out to a 29-13 advantage last Friday against Penn and the starters refused to let Princeton blow the team away early, a big reason the Red was able to stay neck-and-neck with the Ivy League leaders.
“It was just a matter of time until we got more comfortable with the offense,” Gray said. “We’re starting to find an identity and are figuring out what team we have to be to be successful. We put a lot of bodies out there and play hard. We all believe in each other — there’s equal trust in the next person on the bench to come in and produce.”
“I think we can improve more,” Asafo-Adjei said. “We know that if we play this hard, the wins will come.”
Original Author: Quintin Schwab