CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – Dare we say Cornell was a bit soft prior to the Penn loss?
Well, Cornell coach Steve Donahue thought there was almost too much of a businessman’s approach to the Ivy League games.
And it cost the Big Red dearly when three-win Penn shocked Cornell and hung a 15-point L on the Big Red last Friday night at the Palestra.
“We’ve got nice kids, real nice kids,’’ said Donahue on Friday night at Harvard's Lavietes Pavilion. “But when you compete, you’ve got to be a little angry, a little nasty. You’ve got to compete harder. I don’t want to use the word hatred but there are two teams out there and one wants to win. I think we thought if we do our stuff we’ll be fine.’’
So Donahue had a sit-down with the Big Red in the 24 hours after the Penn loss and lit into them prior to the road game 24 hours later at Princeton.
Cornell beat league-unbeaten Princeton by three that night. Then on Friday, in front of easily the most raucous crowd ever at Harvard, the Big Red put a 3-point hurt on the Crimson and won 79-70 behind a dozen treys, six from Ryan Wittman (27 points) and four from Louis Dale (20), as well as a giant foot -- as in Jeff Foote (11 points, seven boards) -- imprinted on the Crimson inside.
“I challenged them more than I ever have the past four years,’’ Donahue said. “This past week of practice was super-competitive. We saw the stuff we wanted to see.’’
Cornell won a defensive struggle against Princeton. The Big Red went on an offensive onslaught and contained Jeremy Lin (24 points but had to work hard for his seven field goals and he missed all three 3s). This all comes on the heels of the Big Red getting into the top 25 for the first time ever in the USA Today/ESPN Coaches poll.
“We’ve had so much publicity the past two years in making the tournament,’’ Donahue said. “And then for those two weeks when we were ranked I’ve never seen anything like that on campus. It was everywhere, on Wall Street, all over our alumni. It probably screwed us up a bit. We somewhat needed a loss. But if we were going to have one last weekend it was more important to be at Penn, not at Princeton, because we needed to give them a loss.’’
Seeing Cornell in person Friday night gave an even clearer indication of how important Foote and Wittman are to this team’s success. Foote’s long reach can be disturbing for teams. He is an equalizer for the higher-level teams. Harvard coach Tommy Amaker reiterated how much he thinks Foote is the difference for the Big Red and the reason why they could be trouble for teams in March.
But Wittman’s leadership -- his ability to know time, score and when to catch-and-shoot on the fly -- is even more apparent in person. Wittman was quick to credit Dale’s ability to put him in position to score. But Dale said Wittman is “always sprinting the floor. I know his feet will be set, he’ll be ready to shoot. You can’t give him much space because he’ll knock it down.’’
The Big Red also showed their depth with Errick Peck coming off the bench to nail a 3-pointer and a key bucket. This team is flawed of course and might not handle pressure as much or have the ability to absorb front-court fouls. But when the shooting is on, the Big Red should be able to hang with most of the teams in the field, save possibly seeds 1-4 (although Kansas might not want to see this team again).
That means the Big Red could win a game – or two -- in the NCAA tournament.
But first the Big Red has to win the Ivy. Beat Princeton at home next Friday and the race is essentially over and the automatic bid may be a mere formality.
The Big Red is now akin to Butler in the Horizon and Gonzaga in the WCC -- they get the best crowd and the opposing team’s best shot. Students stormed the Palestra court at Penn. They were rocking at Princeton last Saturday and Harvard’s students were amped up for this one with chants of “safety school,’’ a halftime change from white to black t-shirts and plenty of noise.
“This is great,’’ Dale said. “We want to be that team that is looked upon as the top team that every team gives you their best shot. We want to play in games like this. There is so much at stake with no Ivy League tournament.’’
Cornell should beat Princeton and win the league. But that's familiar by now.
The difference is, for the first time during this successful run, the Big Red may also be tough enough to win a game in mid-March.
That's an unfamiliarity Cornell could get used to.