In a battle of experience versus youth, it was experience that came out on top.
Despite a wild rally at the end of the game, Cornell couldn’t come out on top against a Columbia squad many have pegged to win the conference. The Red fell to the Lions 74-70.
The Lions’ core of juniors and seniors were too much for the Red’s youth, which was compounded by the absence of Robert Hatter, the current Ivy League scoring leader. The junior guard was in street clothes and had a boot on his leg. Head coach Bill Courtney gave no timetable for his return. Freshman guard Matt Morgan picked up the slack in Hatter’s absence, scoring 29 points.
“[Columbia] made senior players and we had about four possessions in a row where we made young guy plays,” Courtney said.
One of those “young guy” plays caused a huge momentum swing in favor of Columbia. After Morgan made a straightaway three to bring Cornell within two with 16 seconds left, sophomore forward Jordan Abdur-Ra’oof poked the ball away from Columbia star Maodo Lo, potentially setting up an opportunity for the Red to tie up the game. Abdur-Ra’oof pounced on the loose ball, but, despite cries from the bench to call a timeout, the sophomore tried to pass the ball to Morgan but the pass was picked off by Columbia’s Alex Rosenberg, deflating Cornell’s hopes to finish off the rally.
Rosenberg passed the ball to Jeff Coby, whom the Red fouled. Coby missed one of two and Abdur-Ra’oof pulled down the rebound. A couple of seconds later Morgan was fouled. The refs ruled it was unintentional and the freshman attempted a pair of free throws, making one. Following the miss, Coby was then put on the line again, but this time he made both, giving Columbia the 74-70 victory.
Lo, who knocked down two huge shots toward the end of the game, was largely kept at bay throughout the first 35 minutes of the contest, but caught fire when the Lion’s needed him most. The senior guard, who many consider to be the best player in the league, missed eight of his first nine shots, and generally looked like a shell of himself for most of the game.
“He’s a great player,” Courtney said. “We tried to take it out of his hands as much as we could.”
Courtney credits the team’s aggressive backcourt defense as a main reason the Red was able to disrupt Lo and the rest of the Lions’ offense, holding Columbia to 37 percent shooting.
Offensively for Cornell, Morgan was much more aggressive than he usually plays, taking 23 of Cornell’s 58 shots.
“With Robert [Hatter] out, he’s our second leading scorer,” Courtney said of Morgan. “I didn’t know that he’d get that many [shots] off because he was playing on the ball more.”
Morgan, playing the majority of the game at point guard, shot early and often, letting loose 16 shots in the first half, connecting on 6 of them, including back-to-back deep three pointers from nearly the exact same spot.
“It was really different,” Morgan said about playing without Hatter. “He’s the guy with the ball in his hands mostly. He’s setting me up. He scores a lot of our points so I knew coming into the game that I would have to pick up the scoring and the defensive load a little bit.”
The freshman’s 29 points were the most by a Cornell first-year player since Hatter netted 32 points two years ago.
The Red, down by 11 with a little over three minutes to play, put together a late run, orchestrated by its youngest players. Morgan and fellow freshman Troy Whiteside made a flurry of shots in the final minutes to help Cornell chip away at a lead Columbia had quickly built late in the game.
“Troy Whiteside really stepped up, I loved the way he played today. He was aggressive. Stone [Gettings] was also aggressive. Joel [Davis], when he came in, gave us good minutes,” Morgan said of his freshman classmates playing in their first in-conference game.
But it was too little and too late for a young Cornell team that was exhausted by the time the final buzzer sounded.
The game started back and forth, with the teams trading leads early on. Sharp shooting from the Red allowed Cornell to keep pace with Columbia’s polished ball movement. In the first 14 minutes, Morgan led the way with 18 points.
Also active in the first half was Abdur-Ra’oof, who made two of four 3-point field goal attempts. In addition to his offense, Abdur-Ra’oof stood out on defense with a strip late in the half which led to a transition score for freshman Joel Davis.
Notably absent from the first 20 minutes was junior center David Onuorah. The big man picked up two early fouls and didn’t play in the first half following the second foul, an offensive foul with just over 10 minutes to play in the half. Even in the second half, Onuorah was largely a non-factor, tallying two points and five rebounds.
The Red started the second period with a couple of quick baskets, three coming from junior guard Darryl Smith as he drove twice for tough lay-ups and then made a step back jump shot to bring Cornell to within one. Smith, currently in second in field goal percentage in the league, made all five of his shots, scoring 12 points.
Later in the half, Morgan made his first 3-point field goal of the second period and Cornell’s hard press immediately forced Columbia into a turnover. The Red capitalized off the misstep from the Lions as Davis knocked down a jump shot to give Cornell the lead.
The teams would exchange the lead a couple times, but Lo’s second made shot of the night, this one a deep three, gave the Lions the lead for good. Another Lo 3-pointer a couple minutes later put Columbia up by seven with under six minutes to play.
“It’s a good experience for us, going up against a lot of seniors,” Morgan said. “Getting this experience early, going up against them, they’re predicted to be one of the top teams in the Ivy League and we battled with them. It was good for us getting that experience, being such a young team. I think we can definitely build on this.”
Morgan and the Red get a second chance to take down Columbia when the Lions visit Ithaca next week.