Cornell’s Berth In Ivy League Tournament Worth Wait

As his team make a makeshift theater out of the visiting locker room at Leede Arena, Cornell coach Brian Earl was some 50 yards away, as far as humanly possible in Dartmouth’s quaint home. He seemed to be intensely watching the young sons of Dartmouth coaches play a 2-on-2 game, but his mind was elsewhere. Probably in many places at once.

Cornell had just completed an impressive 86-75 road victory over Dartmouth to finish 6-8 in Ivy League play. But to finish fourth and qualify for its first Ivy League Tournament, it needed Yale to knock off Princeton in New Haven. The Bulldogs had an eight-point lead late, but the Tigers stormed back to force overtime as the Big Red was leaving the floor in Hanover. So there they were in the locker room, huddled around a hastily constructed broadcast.

There were roars of approval as Yale jumped out to another lead in overtime, but quick silence when Princeton’s Amir Bell tied it with a three-pointer. However, Miye Oni answered, and eventually the cheering became constant as the Bulldogs sealed the win and Cornell’s trip to The Palestra next Saturday to take on top-seeded Harvard.

Meanwhile, Earl’s phone buzzed, he checked it, and calmly traversed those 50 yards back to his team’s locker room, opened the door, and briefly joined the impromptu party already in progress.

Going 6-8 in league play can hardly be considered an amazing turnaround, but it is Cornell’s best Ivy League mark since 2011-12 and with all five starters slated to return next season, sends a message that Cornell could be a contender in 2018-19. And, of course, they are now two games away from its first NCAA Tournament berth since its 2010 Sweet 16 run.

But Earl was still somewhat conflicted afterward. Cornell’s gain was Princeton’s loss, completing a baffling Ivy campaign for the Tigers (many of whom Earl recruited), who were expected to contend for a title and not miss the Ivy Tournament altogether. Earl spent a good part of his life at Princeton, graduating in 1999 and rising as an assistant coach there under Sydney Johnson and Mitch Henderson from 2007-2016.

“We’re obviously happy,” Earl said. “There are great kids everywhere, though. I have special feelings for Princeton, but we’re so happy to be in the Ivy League Tournament. Our guys worked really hard all season, but there’s a little bit of wanting to see them do well, too, for me. But we can’t both be there.”

Cornell also needed Columbia to fall at Harvard, and that game was never close, the Crimson wrapping up the top seed in Philadelphia with a 93-74 rout in Boston.

But that’s life in the zero-sum world of competitive sports, as Cornell recovered nicely from a double-overtime loss at Harvard the night before that would have left them in control of its own destiny. The Big Red made 11 of their first 12 shots and did not trail after the opening minutes. With Dartmouth (7-20, 3-11) – which had blown out Columbia the night before – keying on Matt Morgan, he was able to find other people, most notably Jack Gordon, who came off the bench to score 16 points on 6-7 shooting.

“We took care of business like we were supposed to,” Morgan said. “All we could do was win and hope a couple of things went our way, and they did.”

Dartmouth did cut Cornell’s lead to six at the half, but never got closer than five as the Big Red (12-15, 6-8) used a 13-2 run keyed by three-pointers from Gordon and Jake Kuhn to essentially put the game away. The Big Red shot 9-18 from behind the arc, but also finished 22-31 on two-point attempts (for a stellar 72.4 eFG%) for 1.28 points per possession.

“I didn’t play a second of basketball last night and I was exhausted,” Earl said. “Some of my guys played 45 minutes, but we battled tonight, too. I’m so proud. We just keep trying to get better.”

Morgan, who entered as the nation’s ninth-leading scorer at 22.9 points per game, did finish with 16 on just 10 field goal attempts (6-10). Morgan was only fourth in percentage of shots attempted in conference play (behind teammate Stone Gettings, Desmond Cambridge, and Seth Towns). Cornell still only finished fifth in the Ivy in offensive efficiency, but was over 1.00 ppp in its final six games, which may give them a fighting chance of upsetting Harvard next weekend.

“He’s (Matt’s) so unselfish, and to say that about someone who averages 22 points per game, people wouldn’t know that,” Earl said. “He’s got guys draped all over him and he’s always the first guy that says we have to move the ball. That’s a blessing to have someone who’s that talented and most of his natural instinct is to understand that we’re better when we’re playing together and everyone’s involved.”

Said Morgan: “I watched it last year. It’s an insane atmosphere. I’m just ready to play in it now. It’s going to be awesome and it’s going to take everyone on the team for us to win just like it did tonight.”

For now, though, Cornell can use the rest of its weekend to celebrate a job well done and a big step on its way back to competing with the current powers at the top of the Ivy League. And perhaps giving James Jones and Yale a free dinner in Philadelphia.

“He’s beat me up a few times, too, but he’s a good guy,” Earl said. “I’ll buy them something nice.”

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