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Cornell did just about everything right in its 2010 NCAA basketball tournament opener

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Saturday, March 20, 2010

JACKSONVILLE, FLA.

There was only one moment on Friday afternoon when a Cornell basketball player failed to do exactly what he was expected to do on the basketball court.

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There were 17 seconds left in the 40-minute clinic Cornell had put on against Temple at Veterans Memorial Arena on Friday afternoon when Ryan Wittman was fouled. Wanting to give his players a moment to celebrate before the game was over, Big Red Coach Steve Donahue sent five subs to the scorer's table so the starters could come out and begin a group hug.

The only starter left was Wittman, who had to shoot the two free throws. Fellow senior Andre Wilkins waited patiently at the scorer's table for Wittman, an 86 percent free throw shooter, to finish his near-perfect game with a last flourish.

Wittman couldn't do it.

"I guess it all got to me," he said with a big grin moments later, sitting in the Cornell locker room after his team's 78-65 victory in the first round of the NCAA tournament was official. "I was just so excited that they got away from me. Our fans were going crazy and it was just one of those moments you dream about. Believe me, I was trying to make them. But there was a lot on my mind right then. I don't even remember shooting the first one. We'd waited three years for this day."

This group of Cornell seniors won the Ivy League title as sophomores and then got blown out by Stanford in the first round of the NCAA tournament. A year ago, as juniors, they won the league again and were soundly beaten by Missouri.

"From the minute we lost that game, our goal was to get back here and win," said point guard Louis Dale, who had 21 points and seven assists on Friday. "Everything we did all summer and all fall, everything about our nonconference schedule was set up so we could come in here and win."

Dale's presence at Cornell is, in many ways, symbolic of how Donahue built his program. Listed very generously at 5 feet 11, he was an un-recruited senior in Birmingham, Ala., when he called Donahue and asked him if he would look at a tape he had made of himself. "I'm not sure he even remembers the conversation," Dale said with a grin. "It was brief. He just said okay, so I sent it."

Donahue certainly remembers the tape. "It wasn't digital or anything fancy at all," he said. "Almost grainy. But I looked at it and said, 'No one has recruited this kid?' Then I saw he had 1,300 on the SATs. He came up to visit wearing braces with a deposit check [for $400] that his mom had given him. It's sort of the anti-modern day recruiting story."

Center Jeff Foote walked on at St. Bonaventure and didn't play at all before he transferred to Cornell. Wittman was the son of NBA player and coach Randy Wittman but was overlooked early on by the big-name schools and committed to Cornell. Those three players scored 57 of Cornell's 78 points Friday.

"We waited a long time for this moment," Foote said. "Now isn't the time really to think about what it all means -- that will come later. When we saw the nonconference schedule this summer we knew exactly what coach was doing. He wanted us to get to these games this time of year and walk on the floor thinking, 'We can play with these guys.' That's exactly how we felt today."


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