Cornell shows its strength
JACKSONVILLE , Fla. – Ryan Wittman’s first 3-pointer of the second half gave upset-minded Cornell an 11-point lead. His second – a possession later – upped the margin to 12.
For a split second, Wittman looked a little satisfied, maybe sensing the upset was near. But it was hardly time to celebrate.
“We probably would have been more excited if we were getting stops at the same time,” Wittman said.
Before long, Temple had scored on six consecutive possessions to cut the lead to six. The Owls appeared to be on the verge of following a time-honored NCAA tournament script for high-seeded teams: Wake up then put down a hungry mid-major.
Wittman and his teammates wouldn’t stand for it. His third 3-pointer started an 18-6 run that helped No. 12 seeded Cornell roll to a surprisingly easy 78-65 victory in a first-round game in the East Region.
Cornell will meet No. 4 seeded Wisconsin in the second round Sunday.
Even though Temple heated up, Cornell never relented. This wasn’t a mid-major that just scraped by a top-20 team. The Big Red controlled the game from start to finish.
Wittman and his teammates looked like a team having fun in this first-round win over the Owls, but they didn’t forget that playing angry will lead them to NCAA tournament wins.
“The last two years we were happy to be in the tournament,” Cornell point guard Louis Dale said. “This time we had an edge.”
Cornell gave the Ivy League its first NCAA tournament victory since 1998 when fifth-seeded Princeton beat 12th-seeded UNLV. The Big Red also gave the conference its first NCAA tourney upset since 1996.
The next question is how far Cornell can advance. The win over Temple was that convincing.
The Owls are one of the best defensive teams in the country, holding opponents to 37.9 percent shooting from the field and 28.1 percent from 3-pointers. Cornell didn’t seem to mind. The Big Red shot 56.3 percent against Temple.
In the first half, when Cornell couldn’t hit a 3-pointer, it missed only one shot inside the arc.
Cornell coach Steve Donahue, an assistant for Temple coach Fran Dunphy for 10 seasons at Penn, knew Dunphy normally wouldn’t change his defense on a whim. But Dunphy didn’t have much of a choice after halftime. He tried look after look to slow down Cornell.
“We’re a tough team to do that against, and he knows that,” Donahue said. “I think he thought they needed to try something.”
Cornell might not be here if not for Dunphy and Donahue’s former employer, Penn. The 6-22 Ivy League team upset Cornell 79-64 on Feb. 12 for the Big Red’s first conference loss.
Suddenly, the same team that almost beat Kansas trailed Princeton by a game in the Ivy League standings. The quick turnaround – Ivy League teams play conference games on Fridays and Saturdays – and the absence of a conference tournament erased just about any margin for error for Cornell.
“From that point on, we developed a competitive anger against our competition,” Donahue said. “Sometimes this group can be too nice. Against a team like Temple you’ve got to play with a competitive anger.”
Cornell won at Princeton 48-45.
Like the Big Red’s first-round opponent, Princeton prefers to slow the game to a grinding pace. Cornell didn’t lose another league game on the way to the title.
“That was dire straits, that Princeton game. We gutted it out, and I think it turned our season around,” Donahue said. “If we didn’t lose to Penn, I don’t think we would have won the next night because we didn’t learn our lesson … and I don’t know if we get to this point.”
For the next 48 hours, Cornell will be one of the darlings in this year’s tournament. The Big Red will hear its share of feel-good stories about the Ivy League, about their team chemistry and the players other schools ignored.
Their anger, however, may be why they’re still playing.