East Region

In Sweet 16, Cornell's run ends against Kentucky

The road to Indianapolis is paved with dramatic snapshots.
By Zach Berman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 26, 2010

SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- The Carrier Dome's clock had not yet struck midnight when Cornell Coach Steve Donahue thought his team was going to come back and beat Kentucky. It was only a six-point game with just less than six minutes remaining, and Donahue had seen his team in that position before.

"I thought this was our game," Donahue said.

But Cornell could not cut into the lead any deeper, and top-seeded Kentucky dominated the rest of the way for a 62-45 victory over 12th-seeded Cornell in an East Region semifinal.

After the game, attention was paid as much to this season's Cinderella as the Wildcats, which are now the NCAA tournament favorites entering Saturday's region final against second-seeded West Virginia at 7 p.m. It will be the only game in the round of eight featuring a region's top two teams.

"We don't view ourselves as an Ivy League team going up against Kentucky," said Cornell guard Chris Wroblewski. "We viewed ourselves as equals. We kind of thought we could play with them. And we did. If it wasn't for some turnovers and if some shots fall, it would have been a different outcome."

The Big Red opened with a 10-2 lead in the first five minutes before Kentucky closed the first half on a 30-6 run. Cornell embarked on a run in the second half, but it was not enough to overcome the Wildcats' significant talent advantage.

Thursday's game was billed as a college basketball version of "jocks vs. nerds" -- the powerful Southeastern Conference team with future NBA draft picks against the Ivy League team with unheralded recruits and no scholarships.

Kentucky center DeMarcus Cousins joked that it's a basketball game, not a reading challenge. The story line stretched to the Carrier Dome, where one fan's sign read that Cornell's jocks are smarter than Kentucky's nerds.

"I mean, what's that got to do with basketball?" said Cousins, who scored 16 points and added seven rebounds. "They're one of the smartest schools out there. They should have that title before every game they play."

This much was clear: Kentucky's basketball players were better than Cornell's basketball players. Freshman point guard John Wall and Cousins -- both projected to go in the top five in June's NBA draft -- overpowered Cornell. Wall had eight points with seven rebounds and eight assists. Cornell senior Ryan Wittman was pestered by the Wildcats and limited to 10 points.

"Our goal in the game was to guard the three-point line and then to also not foul them because they're a great free-throw shooting team," Kentucky Coach John Calipari said. "But the discipline it takes to play that way, the focus that it takes for a group of young players like this, in their first NCAA tournament run, was tremendous."

When Cornell beat fifth-seeded Temple and fourth-seeded Wisconsin in the opening two rounds of the NCAA tournament, the Big Red had the benefit of playing against teams built around defense and featuring methodic offenses. Kentucky is perhaps the most athletic team in the nation, and their talent and size would be a tough matchup for anyone -- much less an Ivy League opponent.

Kentucky's players were ready to quickly move onto the Mountaineers, understanding the challenge of playing the Big East tournament champions. Cornell's players were less apt to move on, struggling to put the best season in Big Red history in perspective minutes after the final game of many of their careers.

"What this group accomplished is almost surreal, what's gone on the last two weeks," Donahue said. "I know it sounds corny, but they love each other more than any team in this tournament, in my opinions. That's why we're good. That's crazy, but that's why."

Unlike Kentucky, where the expectations are seemingly to reach the Final Four every season, Cornell had never won a postseason game before this season. It was only fitting that the Big Red's hopes appeared lost just as the clock struck midnight. At some point, all Cinderella stories come to an end.

"These guys are going to kick themselves, but this has been unbelievable," Donahue said. "The amount of support and outreach that people have done for these guys, and what they did over this tournament has just been incredible. I appreciate it. I understand. They will soon."

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