ITHACA — As the Cornell men’s basketball team prepares for its anticipated Ivy League matchup against first-place Harvard on Friday night at Newman Arena, Big Red coach Bill Courtney says he wants to see his team do one thing: Take care of the basketball.
Cornell (10-11, 2-2 League) will have an opportunity to do that and continue its climb up the Ivy League standings, this time in front of its home crowd. The Big Red, a winner in six of its last nine games, is hoping to build upon the momentum gained from its 71-69 come-from-behind victory last Saturday at Pennsylvania.
“The win (at Penn) was huge for us,” Courtney said. Cornell trailed by 10 points with just over 14 minutes to play before a 13-3 run helped turn the tables on the Quakers.
“For us to be down by 10 and tackle that adversity in a tough environment was huge,” Courtney said. “In the last couple weeks, we have proven to ourselves that we can be successful on the road.”
The road trips, says Courtney, have helped the team come together in recent weeks. If that is the case, it would be perfect timing for the Big Red to carry its momentum into Friday’s game against the defending Ivy League champion Crimson (12-6, 4-0).
“We feel pretty confident,” Courtney said. “We know we haven’t been great at home this year, so we have to win. If we don’t win these games at home, we have no shot at winning the league.”
Cornell, 3-5 at home this season but a winner of five of its last six on the road, figures to have its hands full Friday night. Harvard is riding a four-game win streak and has won the last four meetings between the schools. Coach Tommy Amaker’s squad is equipped with a powerful offense that is ranked fifth in the nation in 3-point shooting percentage (41.5 pct.) and 13th in overall field goal percentage (48.6 pct.).
The Crimson is led by Ivy Player of the Year candidate Wesley Saunders (16.3 points per game), a 6-5 sophomore guard/forward, and 6-foot freshman guard Siyani Chambers (13.3 ppg., 6.1 assists per game).
Courtney calls Harvard’s defense “great” and has a special ability to control the tempo and keep the games low-scoring.
“Facing the defending champions and first-place team presents a big challenge for us,” Courtney said. “But I think our guys are ready for that challenge.”
Part of Courtney’s confidence going into the weekend has stemmed from the progress his players have made. He was particularly pleased with the way senior Errick Peck — who missed all of last season with an injury — stepped up in the game against Penn, when he was perfect from both the floor (8-for-8) and the foul line (3-for-3) en route to a team-high 20 points.
Courtney feels that, in general, his players are getting comfortable in their roles.
“Guys are really understanding what we want them to do,” Courtney said. “They’re doing what they have to do to help us.”
Cornell’s balanced attack is led by 6-7 sophomore forward Shonn Miller (10.1 ppg.) and senior guard Johnathan Gray (9.3 ppg.).
As much as Cornell has been studying Harvard, the Red is entering the weekend with a strong focus on itself. Courtney is stressing the importance of playing the game with the team in mind.
“We have to use the strengths we have,” he said. “We have to use our speed and quickness, our athletic ability, and we have to execute on the offensive end.”
With six of his team’s next nine games at home, the Big Red needs to win at Newman to have a shot at winning the Ivy League.
On Saturday, Cornell welcomes Dartmouth (5-13, 1-3) to Newman Arena for a 7 p.m. tipoff. The Big Green, which has gone 3-3 over its last six games, is led by 6-9 sophomore swingman Gabas Maldunas (10.8 ppg., 6.7 rpg.) and freshman guard Alex Mitola (10.1 ppg.).
• NOTES: Cornell leads the series with Harvard, 90-72, dating to 1901-02. In 204 all-time meetings between CU and Dartmouth since 1900-01, the series is tied at 102 apiece. Cornell has won 16 of the last 18 meetings, including nine straight at Newman. ... The Big Red heads back on the road next weekend to visit Yale and Brown, before returning home for consecutive weekends, beginning Feb. 22-23 when Penn and Princeton come to Ithaca.