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

Saturday, March 20, 2010; D07

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.

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."

Temple will take an unfair pounding from some for this loss. The Owls did not play poorly. They shot 53 percent for the game but simply couldn't stop Cornell's remarkably precise offense. Cornell took the lead for good with 17 minutes 15 seconds left in the first half when Wittman drove the left-hand side and banked in a soft 10-footer. At one point in the second half, Temple had hit 9 of 12 shots and saw its halftime deficit go from 37-29 to 63-48.

"We'd make a two, they'd make a three," Temple Coach Fran Dunphy said quietly. Cornell forward Jon Jaques "hit a three to start the half for them and then Wittman hit three in a row. Our defense may not have been that great but they were awfully good."

Temple certainly tried to play good defense. On one possession, the Owls blocked four shots, leading to a 35-second violation. But Cornell kept finding shooters and had balance thanks to Foote's 7-foot presence inside and always seemed able to get the ball into Dale or Wittman's hands went it most needed to do just that.

Wittman's dad was a pretty good shooter himself, a key element on Indiana's 1981 national championship team. His son brought back some memories when he hit the three bombs after a quiet first half. "My teammates did a really good job of finding me," he insisted later. "I just had some really nice looks at the basket."

Not exactly. "He hit tough shots," Donahue said, remembering one when Wittman circled left, pulled up and leaned back right to get the shot off. "He caught and got himself squared to the basket on every one of those shots."

There were a lot of people who thought Cornell was under-seeded at No. 12, notably Dunphy. Donahue had put together a brutal nonconference schedule that included games at Kansas, at Syracuse, at Alabama, at Massachusetts and at St. John's. In all, the Big Red played nine nonconference games on opponents' courts and won seven -- the two losses coming at Kansas and Syracuse.

"People made a big deal out of that Kansas game," Foote said of the 71-66 loss at Allen Field House on Jan. 6. "We came out of there thinking we should have won. The only good news about that night was that when we came out here today, as good as we knew Temple was, there wasn't any doubt in our minds that we could win the game. I'm not sure that was the case the last two years."

There was no wild celebration after the final buzzer. Chris Wroblewski, Cornell's only non-senior starter, scored on an old-fashioned three-point play to make it 54-44 with 14 minutes 13 seconds to go and Temple never got within double digits again, the lead stretching as far as 78-59 with 3:09 left.

Cornell had never won an NCAA tournament game before Friday, going 0-5 (including a consolation-game loss way back in 1954) and the players did pause for a moment in front of their fans to enjoy what they had just accomplished. But that didn't last for very long.

"We'll enjoy this until this next game [Wisconsin-Wofford] is over," Foote said. "Then we'll start getting ready for the next one. We didn't come here to win one game. We came here to start by winning one game."

A Wisconsin TV reporter asked Foote what he knew about Wisconsin. Foote grinned. "Well, I know 'That 70s Show' was set there," he said. "And they're good with cheese."

Friday, Cornell was very good with basketball. Given how much the Big Red put into making this day happen, their performance was borderline astonishing.

"Actually I think pressure's good," Wittman said. "It kind of keeps you from thinking about too many other things. You know what you have to do and you try to go out there and do it."

Cornell certainly did it on Friday. As the players headed to the tunnel after their brief on-court celebration, the fans sitting in the corner of the building where they were exiting came to their feet to give them a well-deserved ovation.

They were all dressed in blue. They were from Duke. Like everyone else in the building, they knew they had just seen something special.

For more on the author, visit his blog at www.feinsteinonthebrink.com

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