As senior guard and co-captain Drew Ferry’s last second heave bounced off the rim, the final buzzer sounded in the Red’s matchup with the Lehigh Mountain Hawks last season. The devastating three-point defeat was the second straight last second loss for Cornell, and part of an eventual seven-game losing streak. After another close loss to American last weekend, 65-62, the Red (2-4) will try to prevent a reoccurrence of last season’s disappointments when it takes the court on Saturday against Lehigh (5-2) at Newman Arena.
The Red has made a habit of playing in close games lately, but the team has earned losses in each of its last two games by a total deficit of only 11 points. Cornell could not hold the lead on Nov. 22 at Delaware with 3:39 left in the game, going on a three-minute scoring draught and eventually losing by eight points. In its most recent game against American, the Red fought back from a 10-point second half deficit, but was never able to take the lead.
“I think one of the problems has been getting off to a slow start and digging ourselves a hole early on,” said senior point guard and co-captain Chris Wroblewski. “It takes so much energy to get back to even, but if we land the first punch, that would do us a lot of good.”
“We do a lot of close game situations in practice,” added junior forward Eitan Chemerinski. “We practice being down by two or up by two with however many minutes left in the game, because more experience is the only way we can prepare.”
Despite its struggles in close games, the Red has shown an ability to fight back late on occasion this season, coming away with a nail-biting five-point win against Boston University two weeks ago.
“We had that close win against Boston, which if we had played in last season, we probably would have lost,” Wroblewski said. “That was a great confidence builder for us.”
Snapping a two-game losing streak will not be easy, though, against a talented and experienced Mountain Hawk team. Lehigh was one possession away from making it to the Patriot League championship for the second year in a row last season, but the team fell to the Bucknell Bisons, 66-64. The Mountain Hawks also return four of their five leading scorers, including junior phenom C.J. McCollum, who is the nation’s leading returning scorer from 2010. McCollum put up 20 points and 13 rebounds in the win over the Red last season, including a 3-pointer with 1:03 left in the game that put the Mountain Hawks ahead for good.
“C.J. is a great player and a tremendous talent, he played extremely well against us last year,” Wroblewski said. “It’s going to take all five guys playing help side defense to be able to stop him.”
McCollum averaged 21.8 points and 7.8 rebounds per game as a sophomore, garnering first-team All-Patriot honors in the process. He will be supported in the frontcourt by junior Gabe Knutson, who finished second on the team in scoring with 12.2 and 5.7 rebounds per game. In the first seven games of the season, the duo has accounted for over 40 percent of the team’s total points.
In addition to stopping the duo of McCollum and Knutson, the Red will also need to boost its own production on the offensive end. Wroblewski, who led the team in scoring in 2010, is shooting only 26 percent from the field thus far, as opposed to 40 percent last year; however, the senior playmaker has dished out 36 assists, primarily benefiting Ferry, the Red’s leader in points scored. Freshman forward Shonn Miller, who was named Ivy League Rookie of the Week for the third straight week, has given the Red an important spark off the bench, along with junior forward Josh Figini, who scored 14 points in the loss to American.
Saturday’s game marks the Red’s third home game in a row, and the last game before a two-week break for exams. The Red has been a considerably stronger team at Newman, recording a 2-1 record thus far, with the only loss coming against American last Sunday.
“The fans at Newman have been more than I could imagine in my career here,” Wroblewski said. “They give the guys so much more comfort and confidence.”
“It’s always great to play at home because there is always such great energy,” Chemerinski added. “It’s really important for us to pick up these wins at home.”
According to Wroblewski, the Red just needs to get back to fundamentals in order to put another win on the board against Lehigh.
“On Saturday, we’re just going to play Cornell basketball,” he said.