The first weekend of Ivy League play for the Cornell men’s basketball team was a microcosm of its up-and-down Winter Break at large. On Friday night at Newman Arena, freshman forward Galal Cancer’s 17-point effort and suffocating team defense pushed the Red (6-10, 1-1 Ivy League) past defending league champion Princeton, 67-59. On Saturday, though, the second double-double of freshman forward Shonn Miller’s young career was not enough to overcome visiting Penn’s hot shooting from beyond the arc, as the Quakers enjoyed a double-digit advantage for most of the night en route to victory, 64-52.
Likewise, the Red thrilled Newman Nation to begin the break by gutting out consecutive come-from-behind overtime wins before suffering five straight close defeats on the road — an eerily similar stretch to Cornell’s 2010-11 Winter Break skid.
The Red dubbed itself the “Comeback Cubs” over Break, using well-distributed scoring to fight past both Lehigh and Albany in overtime, while nearly upending Stony Brook and Maryland. On Dec. 3 against the Mountain Hawks, senior guard and co-captain Drew Ferry scored 20 points, junior guard Miles Asafo-Adjei had a career-high 13, junior guard Johnathan Gray pitched in 14 and junior forward Josh Figini notched 11 as Cornell triumphed in the extra session, 81-79, despite trailing by seven at halftime.
Then, on Dec. 17 versus the Great Danes, Ferry lit up the scoreboard with 26 points to lead four double-figure scorers while the Red rallied from a 10-point deficit with nine minutes remaining to lead by six in the last minute. Albany stormed back to force an extra frame, but with 5.2 seconds left, Red senior guard and co-captain Chris Wroblewski drilled a 3-pointer from the right wing once the defender lost his footing to break the deadlocked game. The senior’s shot proved to be the game-winner in an 85-82 home victory, sending the confident Red off on its five-game road swing.
“It was great to see him hit that shot — he’s a senior and the leader of our team,” Figini said. “He really created a memorable moment for himself … Those [overtime] games were huge. They were tough wins and we protected home court.”
However, Wroblewski and the Red were unable to scratch out a victory during the toughest portion of the 2011-12 schedule, which included bouts at Power Six schools Illinois, Penn State and Maryland. Cornell dropped all five games away from Ithaca — four in regulation by a combined 22 points and one in overtime.
“It was definitely a tough stretch, especially since we were playing such good competition,” Figini said. “But we would’ve liked to get more wins. We felt like we were in most of those games. When it came down to the end, we just didn’t get the win.”
In fact, on Dec. 19 in Champaign, Ill., Cancer’s layup with just over two minutes to go handed Cornell a two-point advantage over then-No. 24 Illinois, but Fighting Illini junior guard Brandon Paul hit consecutive jumpers to propel the hosts to a 64-60 win.
Two days later in State College, Pa., the Red hung around all night and a Wroblewski 3-pointer tied the game with under two minutes to play. Nonetheless, the Nittany Lions made enough plays down the stretch to squeak out a victory, 74-67.
After returning home for the holidays, the Red tried to pull off a miraculous comeback again, but the third time was the charm for its opponents. Although the Sea Wolves’ largest lead was 20 and they held a 15-point advantage at halftime, the Red tightened up its defense and Ferry — the nation’s top 3-pointer shooter — hit five from downtown in the second half to help send the game into overtime. However, Stony Brook dominated the Red in the extra period and won, 68-59.
On New Year’s Eve with the Red trailing by three at Bucknell in the final seconds, Wroblewski missed a 3-pointer and Gray’s desperation attempt bounced off the back rim. The 63-60 loss was Cornell’s 13th defeat by a margin of five points or fewer under head coach Bill Courtney in his 40 contests at the helm of the men’s basketball program.
After closing out its road trip on Jan. 3 with a 70-62 defeat at the Terrapins — in which the Red trimmed a 23-point deficit to one on a Ferry layup with 2:10 remaining — Cornell returned home on Jan. 7 and pounced on Division III opponent Albright, 78-60. The Red is 0-8 on the road this season and 6-2 at home.
Last weekend, the Red shocked the Tigers in both teams’ Ivy openers by committing only six turnovers and limiting the visitors to 36 percent shooting from the floor. Penn gave Cornell a taste of its own medicine the next night, though, holding the Red to just 3-of-17 in 3-point shooting. Quakers senior guard Zack Rosen had his way throughout the matchup — tallying 18 points, five assists and five steals — to prevent Cornell from building momentum at the beginning of conference play.
“We’ll keep working on the stuff we may have come up short on,” Figini said. “We showed a lot of improvement in the Princeton game, especially pressuring the ball … You have to give props to Rosen for the game he had. He came out shooting and we had trouble stopping him, which set us back early. We’re just going to learn from that and go out and try to get a win against Columbia [on Saturday].”