By Sam Aleinikoff
“It was fun,” Adam Wire finally concluded, struggling to find the appropriate words to summarize his four years in a Big Red uniform.
It’s tough to blame him for the cliché. How do you express your feelings about three league championships, a trio of NCAA tournament berths, an undefeated conference slate, your school’s first tournament win despite more than a century of basketball, a trip to the Sweet Sixteen, and one frustrating, aggravating, character-testing year?
Of the three seniors – Wire, Aaron Osgood and Mark Coury – only Coury could have predicted the way his time at Cornell would unfold. Transferring from Kentucky after his sophomore season, he watched Red’s first two runs from afar. Osgood and Wire though, roommates since day one, came in with no proof of success. Joining a team that hadn’t reached the 20-win plateau in nearly 60 years, the pair was sold a school on the rise. Cornell had finished in the top half of the Ancient Eight each of the previous three seasons before the frontcourt duo arrived, but hadn’t won a league title since 1988.
Since coming to Ithaca, the highs and lows have been extreme for this group. The euphoria of a court-storming, ESPN-encapsulated, league championship was immediately stomped out by Stanford three years ago. Likewise, in 2009, a hope-filled, more-experienced return trip to the west coast for an NCAA Tournament First Round date quickly fizzled at the hands of Missouri. Last March, the unprecedented journey into the tournament’s second weekend was countered not only by the loss of eight seniors, but also the departure of three assistants and the head coach.
For much of this season, the lows continued. An 0-5 start to league play after just four Ivy defeats in the last three years, coupled with 10 losses by five points or fewer, form quite the powerful punch in the stomach. It was the way that this group finished though – winning six of its last nine games, four of its last five, and each of its final three contests – that takes your breath away.
It’s tough to determine when the Red hit rock bottom this season. Being swept by travel-partner Columbia, falling into a 28-point second half hole at Dartmouth and losing at Yale despite holding a 10 point lead with 1 minute and 58 seconds remaining all provide formidable options. The turning point, however, is clear.
“No question,” first-year head coach Bill Courtney responded when asked if the loss in New Haven marked the beginning of an upswing. “That was kind of the turnaround for us because even though we lost that game, we played 38 great minutes and we used that to catapult ourselves into playing a little better down the stretch.”
The three seniors were at the heart of the team’s development.
The improved play clearly coincided with a newfound offensive touch from Coury, who averaged nine points and five rebounds over the last nine contests. The center reached double figures five times over the stretch, a feat he had accomplished just once in his previous 50 appearances. After playing less than 10 minutes per game in the Red’s 0-5 start to league play, Coury averaged 23 minutes on the court over the final nine Ivy matchups.
Wire’s minutes dwindled during the run, but over the final three contests (all victories) he shot 64 percent from the field, rebounded well, and, true to form, played the role of defensive stopper down the stretch.
Against Penn, he tightly contested a potential game winner without fouling, forcing an errant shot to clang off the iron as time expired. In the win over Brown, his effort on the offensive boards allowed for key second chance buckets in the final minutes. Junior guard Chris Wroblewski called Wire’s play against the Bears “amazing.” On senior night, his pair of blocks led the way in a Red defensive performance that held a league opponent to 35 percent shooting for the first time this year.
Osgood, who is still recovering from a knee injury that kept him off the court for the final third of the season, was inserted into the game ceremoniously in the waning seconds against Yale. His entrance, and quick exit, drew the loudest cheers of the evening.
“They’re basically our whole inside game,” Courtney said of the trio after their Senior Night victory.
The group’s role off the court may have been even more important though. In a transitional year for the program, the seniors have provided stability.
“Those guys have been terrific this year,” Courtney said. “As a first year head coach, I couldn’t ask for a group of leaders better than the group that just left.”
“I don’t think they get enough credit for what this program has done the last few years,” Wroblewski said of the seniors on Friday night. “Everyone talks about [Wittman], Foote, Lou, those are the popular names. But this class has been with us for all the championships and they don’t get enough recognition.”
On Saturday the turnaround that the team elders helped engineer was more apparent than ever. With 1 minute and 58 seconds remaining on the game clock, Cornell led by 10, the exact margin they held at that time four weeks earlier before collapsing in New Haven. There was no historical choke this time though. Instead the Red connected on all six free throw attempts down the stretch – two coming from each Wire and Coury – cementing a fitting end to their careers.
For the senior class, the trio of Ivy championships was an extraordinary accomplishment, but the more impressive feat for this group may have been the three consecutive wins to close out the 2010-2011 campaign. Far removed from the spotlight, they helped the Red of today move out of last year’s shadow.
“It gives our guys confidence that we can be winners,” Courtney said of the season finale. “It gives us confidence that this group, the one that played this year, and the one that will play next year, can win games.”
It may be trite, but Adam Wire couldn’t have said it much better. The last four years of Cornell Basketball have been “fun.” And the work of this season’s senior class will play a huge role in keeping it that way well into the future.