The scoreboard doesn’t lie, of course, but even when the numbers on the Cornell side started to get significantly greater than Harvard’s and the time began to dwindle, there was still little doubt that the Crimson being the Crimson, they would come back and win.
And sure enough, soon the run began. But on this night, it never finished. And Cornell did, with head coach Bill Courtney beating Tommy Amaker for the first time in 10 meetings and throwing the Ivy League race back into chaos with a 57-49 upset of the four-time defending Ivy champs at Newman Arena Friday night.
“It’s my first win over Harvard ever and my seniors first win over Harvard ever,” Courtney said. “It’s huge for those guys, and obviously that’s a sign of respect to what Tommy has built to have that kind of respect and to make this such a big win, even on our home court. It’s huge because he’s built a heck of a program.”
It was a night where Harvard (19-6, 9-2), who had looked like it had solved many of its offensive woes, never got any kind of consistency going offensively, finishing at 0.88 points per possession, but that only tells part of the story. The Crimson had 21 offensive rebounds (44.7%), but only converted them into 11 second-chance points as Cornell, led by Shonn Miller and David Onuorah (who combined for seven blocks) did what very few teams have been able to do against Harvard in the past couple of seasons, control the paint.
Wesley Saunders finished 6-21 from the field, while Siyani Chambers – although he hit his first two shots of the second half – ended up just 3-10, with no late magic this time around. Cornell dared non-shooters like Jonah Travis and Agunwa Okolie to beat them and, for the most part, they couldn’t do it.
“It was just a tough night for us,” Amaker said. “(Shonn) Miller is a great player and played that way tonight. You can see looking at the numbers how poorly we shot the ball and had no offensive flow and rhythm, and that just kills you in a game like this when both teams are struggling to put it in the basket and get to the foul line and make their free throws and we didn’t make enough of ours, and that becomes one of the stat lines that becomes critical when you’re not shooting it well from the floor. We didn’t earn it. We didn’t deserve it, and they did.”
Somewhat surprisingly for a team that is 300th nationally in offensive efficiency, Cornell is 15th nationally in free throw shooting (75.0%) and went 20-21 Friday night, that number alone going a long way to hold off Harvard’s late charge. Meanwhile, trailing 48-41 with 1:47 left, Corbin Miller, who had missed three free throws all season, was fouled on a three-point attempt and proceeded to miss all three attempts. That’s the way it went for the Crimson, who never led in the second half.
“That was somewhat indicative of the night for us of how tough it was to score,“ Amaker said. “For whatever reason, that happened. It’s unfortunate it happened tonight to him, but it happened.”
With Yale’s win, it now becomes a 3-game race to the finish between the Bulldogs and Harvard, and Yale would seem to have a leg up tomorrow night with a home game against Penn while the Crimson have to go down to New York City to take on Columbia. Yale and Harvard meet next Friday at Lavietes Pavilion.
“We just have to learn from this one,“ Saunders said. “We have to look at the things we did wrong and get ready for Columbia because they’re not going to feel sorry for us at all.”
For Cornell, this was probably the biggest win of Courtney’s tenure in Ithaca. This is his fifth year in charge after taking over for Steve Donahue, who only won three straight Ivy League titles and went to the Sweet 16 in 2010 before taking over at Boston College. The Big Red (13-14, 5-6) have not had a winning record since and suffered through a disastrous 2-26 (1-13 in Ivy play) campaign last season that saw Miller miss the entire season.
It is striking how much different Courtney’s teams play than his predecessor. Obviously, the 2010 Big Red team was special, yet they finished fourth in the nation in offensive efficiency (tops in three-point percentage), while posted generally mediocre defensive numbers. The Big Red now have very good athletes, as demonstrated by the late-game moves of Robert Hatter and Devin Cherry, but are just 318th nationally in eFG%, and even Friday, could have made things even easier on themselves by hitting a shot or two to Harvard completely out (Hatter was only 1-10 from the field). But Friday’s defensive performance pushed them to 64th nationally in efficiency and the Big Red are now 17th in two-point defense (42.3%).
“If you look at any game of ours when we’ve been successful, it’s because we’ve been the more scrappy team, the more aggressive team,” Courtney said. “We’re not the biggest team in the world. Even though Shonn and David do a great job of blocking shots, you know Galal (Cancer), Devin, Robert (Hatter), they just hustle and that really helped us win.”
Cornell led 22-21 at the half and extended it to 40-28 with 10:30 left before Saunders started to lead Harvard back, getting as close as 42-39 on another Saunders three with 5:20 remaining. Saunders had a chance to tie on the next possession, but missed and Cherry scored at the other end. Soon after that started the parade to the free throw line and Cornell did not blink.
It was an especially rewarding night for Shonn Miller, who finished with 24 points with those 15 rebounds and went 8-8 from the free throw line. He has taken some heat for his outside shooting, but drilled back-to-back three-pointers in the second half, and after Corbin Miller missed his free throws, hit a long jumper to basically put it out of reach.
“I normally don’t show emotion at all,” Shonn Miller said. “But I just felt when I hit that last shot, it was like, ‘Yes’. It felt good, the crowd was into it, and we were finally about to beat them (Harvard) for the first time in my career. It was just a lot built up to that point.”
Cornell will go off the radar the rest of the way, finishing with Dartmouth, Princeton, and Penn, but wins in two of those three would get them to .500 and possibly give them a shot at postseason play, still a far cry from the heights of five years ago, but a step in the right direction for the program.
Harvard? Well, they hope they can still step into the NCAA Tournament for the fourth consecutive season, even with Friday’s setback, but they’ll need more offense to do it.