Down two with 3.2 seconds on the clock, Cornell had one shot to preserve its undefeated Ivy League record. But after a last-second heave from junior guard Nazir Williams back-rimmed out, its undefeated Ivy League record was no more.
Having each won their six Ivy League matchups thus far, men’s basketball (17-4, 6-1 Ivy) and Yale (16-6, 7-0 Ivy) took the court on Saturday, Feb. 10 in a battle to remain undefeated in the conference. After a strong first half from the Red, a second-half comeback from Yale led to a heartbreaking defeat, giving Cornell its first Ivy League loss of the season.
“We fought hard,” said head coach Brian Earl. “From the untrained eye, I think we looked pretty good. But there are some things we need to work on.”
Prior to Saturday afternoon’s game, Earl emphasized the importance of playing a complete game against Yale, particularly alluding to Cornell’s appearance in the Ivy League Tournament in 2023. The Red underwent a similar second-half lapse in the 80-60 loss on March 11, 2023.
“[In] the second half of [the 2023 Ivy League Tournament] game, we fell apart a little bit. We had it where we wanted it in the first half,” Earl said.
The Red took advantage of costly turnovers from Yale in the first 20 minutes of Saturday’s game, holding an 11-2 advantage in points off turnovers. However, second-chance points by the Bulldogs ultimately contributed to the Cornell loss.
“Sometimes, you make shots. We made a couple [of] hard ones in the first half but [there were a] couple of open three [pointers] we missed that maybe went in the first half,” Earl said.
The first seven minutes presented an even battle between both teams, with Williams and senior guards Chris Manon and Isaiah Gray leading the way for the Red. After freshman guard Jake Fiegen knocked down a three with 15 minutes left in the half, Cornell controlled the momentum, with their lead growing to as much as 15 points.
The Red held the advantage in both field goal percentage and three-point percentage throughout the first half, going 16-28 (57 percent) and 7-13 (54 percent) respectively. This efficient shooting contributed to Cornell’s eight-point halftime lead.
Despite the lights-out first half that showed Cornell could hang with the strong Yale squad, Earl was quick to deflect praise, redirecting his focus toward the game’s outcome.
“You have to acknowledge you lost,” Earl said. “We know we can play hard and win most of our games in the league, but in the end, you have to win the actual game.”
In the second half, Yale came out with energy, driving to the paint, drawing fouls and earning free-throws. Midway through the half, the Bulldogs scored six straight points to shrink the lead to a singular point.
Yale shot the ball better in the second half, improving their 10 percent three-point shooting and 44 percent field-goal shooting to a strong 50 percent in both categories. Their improved production and continued capitalization of second-chance points helped the Bulldogs claw their way back into the game.
The Red’s lead continued to fluctuate throughout the final 10 minutes. After Cornell led nearly the whole game, Yale went on another 6-0 run, tying the score with four minutes left following a jumper by forward Danny Wolf.
Wolf was dominant for Yale, leading all players with 25 points. The Red’s scoring was driven largely by Manon’s 22 points, but also by its bench, which accumulated 26 points.
With 1:30 left, a foul by Gray brought Yale guard August Mahoney to the line to shoot two. Mahoney went 1-2, but Cornell could not respond as they missed two three-pointers with one minute left in regulation.
“[Yale is] a really tough team,” Earl said. “It takes everybody doing the right thing all the time to beat a team like that.”
A turnover by Yale with 37 seconds remaining gave the Red life, as Manon hit a difficult jumper in the paint to take the one point lead. Seconds later, the Bulldogs missed a shot of their own but grabbed the offensive rebound and took a quick timeout with only four seconds remaining.
Yale guard Bez Mbeng inbounded the ball and found forward Matt Knowling who made a jumper and drew a foul from Gray to put the Bulldogs up 79-78. A free-throw would extend the lead to 80-78, where the game ended.
With the heartbreaking loss, the Red dropped to second place in the Ivy League, with a chance at redemption against Yale at home in a couple weeks time.
“[We have to] keep playing our brand of basketball. We need to improve on a couple things, including rebounding, playing our pace at the end of the game and covering up some coverage issues,” Earl said. “Those are the little technical things we need to clean up, [but we need to] make sure that we’re doing everything we need to do to hang with them [next time].”
The Red will look to rebound as it takes on Harvard (12-8, 3-4 Ivy) at 6 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 16 at Newman Arena. The game will be broadcast on ESPN+.