Cornell sinks m. hoops’ Ivy title hopes

Monday, February 25, 2008

ITHACA, N.Y. – It was billed as the Ivy League’s game of the year, with the second-place men’s basketball team traveling here Saturday to take on Cornell and its 9-0 conference-leading Ivy record.

And with the Bears’ defense stifling the Big Red’s best two players, it appeared that Brown would pull off the upset. All-Ivy guards Mark McAndrew ’08 and Damon Huffman ’08 showed the urgency of seniors who had never won a league title, hitting a barrage of lay-ups and three-pointers.

But in the end, the Bears couldn’t stop a balanced Cornell offense buoyed by a rambunctious home crowd. The Big Red out-shot and out-hustled the Bears in the second half for a 74-65 comeback victory.

The loss means that the team’s three seniors – McAndrew, Huffman and center Mark MacDonald ’08, who has missed the past four games after suffering a concussion – will likely graduate without a championship or an NCAA Tournament trip.

“I really feel bad for those seniors,” said swingman Chris Skrelja ’09. “All those hours in the gym, all the late night shooting, running miles and miles in practice just with that one goal in mind – in making the NCAA Tournament – and it’s just tough.”

Brown (15-9 overall, 7-3 Ivy) now trails Cornell (18-5, 10-0 Ivy) by three games with only four remaining. Both schools finish their schedules against the league’s four worst teams, so the Bears can’t expect losses by the Big Red, who could become the first team to go undefeated in Ivy play since the University of Pennsylvania went 14-0 in 2003 Ivy play.

“Definitely, there’s a sense of disappointment,” McAndrew said. “We set out in the beginning of the year with the goal of winning the Ivy League championship and knowing what was on the line” on Saturday night.

The Bears got off to a quick start in the first half, leading 25-13 at the 7:29 mark after two consecutive Huffman three-pointers. Their matchup zone defense was forcing the Big Red to settle for jump shots that often missed.

But the defense started to slack off, and Cornell went on a run, ending the half down just 33-31. Guard Adam Gore led the run, hitting four of five three-point attempts in the half. Gore finished with a team-high 18 points.

The teams traded scores for most of the second half. Cornell led 54-46 thanks to a three-pointer by forward Geoff Reeves, but the Bears cut the deficit to one at the 8:45 mark when McAndrew picked up a loose ball and converted a lay-up.

But for the rest of the game, the Bears scored only from the free-throw line, as McAndrew, Huffman and swingman Peter Sullivan ’11 repeatedly missed open jump shots.

The killing blow came with 2:19 left. After Cornell center Jeff Foote missed a lay-up, the Big Red beat the Bears to the loose ball – as they did nearly every time Saturday night – and poked the ball back to Foote, who hadn’t moved but was unguarded.

As his 7-foot frame rose for the dunk, so did the entire crowd of 4,254 at the Newman Arena, which many fans said had never been as loud as it had been at that moment.

With Cornell up by seven, Brown started fouling. But the Big Red made their free throws down the stretch to effectively seal their first league title – and the first won by a team other than Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania – since 1988.

After the game, McAndrew said the Bears’ plan was to stop forward Ryan Wittman and point guard Louis Dale, Cornell’s top two scorers. But while the duo scored only 13 points, the Big Red got 25 points out of their bench – all from Reeves, who scored 14 points and hit all four of his three-pointers, and Foote, who scored 11. Brown’s bench could only muster three points on the night.

Skrelja said Cornell’s grabbing offensive rebounds (12, compared to Brown’s two) and loose balls ultimately felled the Bears.

“We were definitely prepared,” he said. “We had a good scouting report. We knew Reeves was a shooter and a couple of times, we just left him open. Foote – we just wanted to make him finish, and he did.”

Skrelja had 12 points and 10 rebounds, while Huffman had a game-high 19 and McAndrew added 18. The Bears shot just 33 percent for the second half, compared to Cornell’s 50 percent. Brown also hurt itself by missing four out of eight free throws during part of the stretch.

Saturday’s game followed a 67-52 win over Columbia in New York City the night before, in which Brown trailed 33-29 at halftime, but started an 18-0 run at the end of the first half. The Bears’ defense held the Lions to just 13 second-half points. McAndrew scored a team-high 18 points, while Huffman and Sullivan each added 16.

McAndrew and Skrelja said the team, which has already clinched its first winning season in five years, is looking to win its four remaining games in hopes of a bid to the National Invitational Tournament or the newly created College Basketball Invitational, which will take 16 teams.

“We’re definitely looking forward to this upcoming weekend with Princeton and Penn to finish the season at home on a high note and to win … in hopes of a postseason bid,” McAndrew said. “You want to play basketball for as long as you can, so we’ll get back to it (tomorrow) and it should be fun. It’s an exciting time for us. We still have a winning record for the first time in my career.”

McAndrew and Huffman can shoot for individual achievements as well. McAndrew, the league’s leading scorer with 17.0 points per game, is a frontrunner for the Ivy League Player of the Year award, and McAndrew now has 1,028 career points, good for 19th on Brown’s all-time scoring list. Huffman is now in 12th place, with 1,198 points.

Princeton visits the Pizzitola Center on Friday and Penn visits on Saturday. Princeton plays at 7 p.m. and

Penn, 6.