JACKSONVILLE, Fla. –– The phrase “Any given Sunday” has historically been invoked with regard to football –– the notion that any team, no matter the odds against it, has a chance to get a win. Today, however, it applied to the Cornell men’s basketball team. The Red pulled off its second upset in a row, and the victim this time around was the fourth-seeded Wisconsin Badgers. To the players, however, Sunday's outcome hardly constituted an upset.
“We knew we were capable of playing against these types of teams, especially with the non-conference schedule we played,” said senior forward Ryan Wittman. “We expect this type of stuff, it’s not a surprise to us.”
With its 87-69 victory, Cornell broke the Ivy League record for most wins in a season with 29. For the second consecutive game, senior guard Louis Dale led his team with 26 points –– a career high. Wittman finished with 24 on 3-of-5 shooting from beyond the arc, and with his first 3-pointer of the day, Cornell's all-time leading scorer surpassed 2,000 points for his career and established a new school record for points in a season with 586 –– breaking the record he set last year. Rounding out the double figure scorers for Cornell were senior center Jeff Foote and Wroblewski with 12 apiece. Foote also grabbed a game-high seven rebounds and dished out four assists.
“They’re unselfish and I don’t think that’s the key. That’s one of the keys. The other key is they’re talented. These are talented basketball players that are unselfish,” said head coach Steve Donahue in the post-game press conference.
Wisconsin was not marred by poor shooting, as the Badgers connected on 49 percent overall despite an 8-for-25 performance from 3-point range. The Red, however, was just that much better, as the Badgers allowed its 12th-seeded opponent to shoot 61.1 percent for the game –– the best percentage by a Wisconsin opponent since February of 2001. Cornell shot 53.3 percent from beyond the arc and forced six turnovers by Wisconsin in the first half alone, a team that is known for taking care of the ball and averages 8.7 turnovers per game.
“I was pretty confident that they hadn’t seen a team like us in their league play. The beauty of this tournament is that after you get out of your league play, no one knows you as well, so you’re able to do what you really do well, and the other team has to make adjustments, and it’s difficult,” Donahue said.
As has been its tendency throughout the season, the Red cruised to a quick 8-0 start before junior forward Jon Leuer –– who led the Badgers with 23 points on 8-of-12 shooting –– got his team on the scoreboard with a made free throw. Wittman and senior tri-captain Jon Jaques combined for Cornell’s first 14 points, with Foote contributing from the charity stripe and senior forward/center Mark Coury –– who will go up against his former team on Thursday –– netting the bench’s first field goal to put Cornell on top, 20-12, with 10:45 to play in the half.
Just over three minutes later, senior guard Jason Bohannon, who finished with 18 points and two steals, nailed a long jumper to bring Wisconsin within three, but that was as close as the Badgers would come for the contest. Cornell quickly silenced the threat as Foote made 1-of-2 from the line and Wittman drilled his second 3 of the half with the shot clock expiring to reestablish the Red lead at seven.
“A lot of credit has to go to our big guys, like Jeff Foote ... Wisconsin does a tremendous job of chasing every screen, and Foote was just slowing them up today and got me a lot of open looks,” Wittman said.
With just eight seconds remaining in the opening frame, Foote handed the ball off to Wittman, who upfaked his defender and buried the jumper to send the Red into the locker room with a 12-point lead, 43-31.
Cornell’s dominance carried into the second half, as Dale exploded for 18 points and the Red mixed in some entertaining plays to complement its signature fadeaway jumpers and backdoor cuts.
After shooting 5-for-5 in the first 20 minutes, Leuer missed his first opportunity of the second half just before Dale drained his first 3 of the game. With 13:31 to play, Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan was awarded a technical foul for badgering the ref (pun intended) –– sending Wittman to the line. Wittman converted 1-of-2 from the charity stripe, and less than a minute later Dale found Foote for an alley-oop to make it 64-49 in favor of the Red. The Badger defense struggled with guarding Foote throughout the contest, never managing to find a solution.
At 8:50, Wittman put up a teardrop floater that provoked some laugher among the players after the game –– as Foote acknowledged that, at the time, he thought Witt was trying to connect with him for the alley-oop.
“[Foote] said he was there for the dunk,” Wittman said –– adding, with a laugh, “That was a shot –– as bad as it looked, it was a shot.”
Regardless of how the play unfolded, it resulted in a 76-54 advantage for the Red.
Foote’s dunk at 3:51 remaining could easily be considered the exclamation point to Cornell’s second-round matchup, as the crowd soon began chanting “Sweet 16.”
With less than a minute to go, the starters sat to a standing ovation and Donahue brought in seniors Pete Reynolds and Andre Wilkins, juniors Max Groebe and Aaron Osgood and freshman Miles Asafo-Adjei to share in the NCAA tournament limelight.
With its 87-69 win over No. 16 Wisconsin, Cornell has now defeated two top 25 teams back-to-back –– after going 17 years without one at all –– and advances to the Sweet 16 for the first time in history. It is the first Ivy League squad to do so since Penn’s run to the Final Four in 1979. The Red will meet the Kentucky Wildcats this Thursday at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, N.Y., with tip-off tentatively scheduled for 9:57 p.m.
“We’re here to prove ourselves and make a name for the Ivy League as well. Some people write us down for being in the Ivy League, but we can play basketball as well,” Dale said.
Donahue had a message for the Cornell faithful following Sunday’s win: “Got to change your flights, got to get back to Syracuse ... let’s make that Orange stadium all Red.”