Despite Sweet 16 loss to Kentucky, Cornell had a season to savor

The road to Indianapolis is paved with dramatic snapshots.
By John Feinstein
Saturday, March 27, 2010

SYRACUSE, N.Y. Jeff Foote, normally the most outgoing and loquacious of Cornell's many outgoing and loquacious basketball players, sat on a chair in the wee hours of Friday morning, staring straight ahead, his voice a dull monotone as he spoke.

"I hate this place," he said, talking about the Carrier Dome, which had rocked with cheers for his team most of the night. "We've never won in here and I hate it. The only good thing about losing is that we never have to play in here again."

That sort of comment was way out of character for Foote but it made clear, in those first few moments after Kentucky's 62-45 East Region semifinal win over Cornell on Thursday night, that the Big Red hadn't made the bus ride from Ithaca to find a moral victory by playing the Wildcats tough.

"I know there will be a time when we look back on this season and realize what we did," point guard Louis Dale said. "I enjoyed every minute of it but right now I have a messed-up feeling in my stomach."

That's the hard part about Cinderella stories in the NCAA tournament: Midnight almost always strikes sooner or later. For Cornell, it struck at 12:14 a.m. on a frigid, rainy night in Syracuse.

There were moments during the game when Cornell appeared to be completely outmatched. For all the talk about how athletic Kentucky was, what really stood out was the sheer size of the Wildcats -- not so much their height but their bulk. Center DeMarcus Cousins looked as if he could swallow Cornell's back court whole given the chance, and even Foote, at 7 feet, had trouble getting shots around the basket because there always seemed to be two large bodies flying in his direction when he attempted to post up.

"For us to come back the way we did in the second half against the most talented team in the country was remarkable," Cornell Coach Steve Donahue said. "Look, I know how badly the kids feel. But I'm 50 years old. I'm an adult. I know what a remarkable ride we've had. The problem is, you don't want the ride to end. I get that, too."

The Cornell players will figure that out at some point. They will look back on Thursday as a special moment in their lives. When the Big Red came on the court to warm up, most of the crowd of 22,271 exploded and the massive building was filled with sound.

"That was an adrenaline rush," Foote said. "We've come in here and into other big buildings but we never heard people cheering for us like that and we'd certainly never seen a sea of red like that, either. That was something."

Dale laughed when he remembered coming out onto the court. "I looked around and even the West Virginia fans were cheering for us," he said.

Dale's performance, trying to battle Kentucky's talented back court of John Wall and Eric Bledsoe, was so outstanding that even the Kentucky fans joined in the ovation when he fouled out in the final minute.

In the end, though, Cornell simply couldn't make enough shots from the three-point line to really make Kentucky sweat. The normally dead-eye Ryan Wittman was 2 of 7 and fellow senior John Jacques was 0 for 4. In all, the Big Red, which shot 43 percent from beyond the arc for the season, went 5 of 21. Even so, after appearing to be on the verge of being blown out after a 30-6 Kentucky run made the halftime score 32-16, Cornell crawled back to within 40-34 on Dale's three-pointer with 5 minutes 42 seconds left.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company