It is amazing what a weekend can do. For the men’s basketball team, a split in two home contests against Cornell and Columbia showed the Ivy League what Head Coach Mike Martin ’04 said prior to the start of conference play: “We can contend in this league.”
But an 0-3 start including two blowouts roused critics, and a narrow home win over last-place Penn — which was missing its leading scorer — did little to quiet the doubters.
There was little to critique about the Bears’ 86-80 win Friday over Cornell (9-11, 2-4 Ivy), a red-hot team welcoming back its top scorer after a road sweep of Harvard and Dartmouth. Then, to prove the win was no fluke, Bruno went toe-to-toe Saturday with the league’s second-best team, Columbia (16-7, 5-1), leading in the final two minutes before falling 77-73.
While Columbia’s late push prevented Bruno from climbing to fourth place in the conference, the Bears are tied for fifth just one week after languishing in last place. They have yet to face the league’s worst teams, Harvard and Dartmouth, which appear next on the schedule.
Brown 86, Cornell 80
The Bears managed to carry the offensive momentum from an 89-point outburst against Penn through the week to hang 86 on the surging Big Red.
An 8-1 Bruno run with seven minutes to play erased Cornell’s final, one-point lead. Three-pointers from Travis Fuller ’19 and JR Hobbie ’17 sandwiched two Steven Spieth ’17 free throws to open up a lead that would not dip below six for the rest of the game.
“That’s a good win against a good team,” Martin said.
Bruno’s four veteran starters showed why they are the core of the team on the offensive end. Each upperclassman starter poured in 14 or more points, led by 16-point outings from Spieth and Cedric Kuakumensah ’16. Point guard Tavon Blackmon ’17 supplemented his 14 points with five assists and four rebounds, while Hobbie’s 15 points came in his usual fashion — five three-pointers.
But the offense could not have sniffed 90 points without contributions from the bench, which chipped in 21. Fuller knocked down a trey and threw down an emphatic dunk en route to seven points, while Kyle Haber ’18 and Jason Massey ’18 dropped in five apiece.
“We have the luxury of playing a pretty sizable rotation, and in a game like that, you need to have depth because of how fast the game was going,” Martin said. “We knew it was going to be a high-possession game.”
The fast-paced play meant that even an 86-point effort did not guarantee victory, and the Big Red cut one deficit after another to stay in the game. The Bears pushed the lead to nine many times in the first half, but a 6-0 Cornell run before the break cut the lead to 37-34.
Massey snatched an offensive rebound and layed it in to give Bruno an 11-point edge six minutes into the second half, but Cornell followed with a 22-10 spurt — punctuated by a Matt Morgan dunk — that vaulted the visitors ahead for a few fleeting moments.
Given the number of areas of the game Cornell controlled, Bruno’s win was all the more impressive. The Big Red forced twice as many turnovers as Bruno, leading to 16 more shot attempts in the game. But Cornell and its leading scorer Robert Hatter could not capitalize on the attempts, as Hatter scored 19 points on 22 attempts.
When Hatter and his teammates missed, Bruno swallowed up the rebounds, edging the Big Red by 10 on the boards.
“The guards were running in and grabbing the ball. … Everybody was getting rebounds,” Kuakumensah said. His 12 boards rounded out yet another double-double for the senior.
Spieth led a tremendous effort from the charity stripe that, statistically, decided the game. Cornell scored four more points from the field, but the Bears’ 21-for-24 mark from the free throw line — headlined by Spieth’s 10-for-10 effort — swung the score in their favor.
“The goal the last couple weekends has been ‘get to the line eight times per game,’ and I think I’m going to make every one when I get there,” Spieth said.
Columbia 77, Brown 73
A loss Friday at Ivy-favorite Yale ended Columbia’s unbeaten streak in the league, but the Lions figure to be in the mix for a title come season’s end. Bruno proved Saturday that the Lions have more to worry about than the league’s top teams.
An unlikely hero for Columbia, Chris McComber, nailed a three-pointer with 1:43 to play, giving the Lions a 70-68 lead and igniting a quick run that Bruno could not surmount.
“We give up a three to a guy who was 3-for-16 coming into the game, but credit (to) him, he stepped up and made a huge shot,” Martin said.
A Haber three-pointer with eight seconds left cut the lead to 75-73, but Grant Mullins put the icing on his surprising 25-point effort with two free throws to nail the coffin.
Unlike their Friday contest, the Bears played from behind for much of the game, as Columbia built its largest lead with 13 minutes to play. But the Bears flipped a switch, rattling off 10 unanswered points to pull back into contention.
Trailing by 11, Bruno secured two offensive rebounds on one possession, which led to a Fuller layup. Then two defensive stops and back-to-back three-pointers from Haber and Spieth awakened the crowd. Finally, a nifty layup by Blackmon drew his team within one.
It stayed close for the final 10 minutes, until a Spieth layup gave Bruno its final lead, 68-67 with two minutes to play.
Martin said his frustration from the game centered on Bruno’s inability to push its late leads because of second-chance points by Columbia.
“We were playing really good defense and running really good offense, but we just weren’t finishing possessions,” he said.
Mullin’s big night and 6-for-9 shooting from beyond the arc propelled his team, while Bruno focused on limiting Columbia’s traditional leaders Maodo Lo and Alex Rosenburg, who each had relatively quiet nights.
Spieth continued his excellent play from the last two weeks with 21 points, but, instead of his usual production from the free throw line, he flashed some perimeter shooting ability.
Haber, who has grown from a benchwarmer to key contributor over the course of the season, joined Spieth as the crucial offensive weapons down the stretch. They seemed to trade big shots, as the duo ended the night 7-for-7 from long range.
Blackmon continued his efficient facilitation of the offense, amassing 14 points and eight assists.
While many might be hesitant to put Bruno in the top half of the Ivy League, the Bears gave some credence to the notion this weekend. A trip to Harvard and Dartmouth this weekend presents an opportunity for Bruno to either even its record in the league or return to the conference cellar.