Cornell Hits Wall, Cousins and Kentucky
SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- No Division I college wanted Louis Dale enough to offer him a basketball scholarship. So videotapes were made of his high school highlights, and copies went into the mail, along with a folder Dale himself prepared out of construction paper and sticky tape, his name written atop it as if it were a grade school project. Soon Steve Donahue, the coach from Cornell, was calling, saying he couldn't offer an athletic scholarship -- just one of those Ivy League quirks -- but he sure was impressed with Dale's old-school determination and his academic brilliance as well as his physical skills, and maybe Dale and the Big Red would be a fine fit.
The Cornell roster is thick with stories like Dale's, stories of kids with sizzling SAT scores who can nail a turn-around jumper in six different languages. They have brains and brawn, goes the prevailing narrative, and for five is-this-really-happening minutes Thursday night, it appeared this simplistic theme might be the most appealing of all in a NCAA tournament bursting with thrills.
Dale, the lightly-recruited senior guard out of Birmingham, Ala., came out like a whirling dervish in the Carrier Dome, Cornell's adopted home court. Kentucky's No. 1 fan Ashley Judd hadn't even settled into her seat and Dale already had a pair of rebounds and five points. He was curling around screens, controlling the floor, and when Cornell took an early 10-2 lead off Dale's 3-pointer, the partisan crowd roared with delight.
But Kentucky knew. The Wildcats knew they were prone to sluggish starts, but more than that they knew they had the key to stopping Cornell's storybook run. High hands, they kept telling each other, and it was this brilliantly efficient strategy that propelled Kentucky to a 62-45 win over Cornell, everyone's sentimental darling.
After all the momentous upsets and last-gasp heaves of last week, the East Regional is exactly where it was expected to be before millions of brackets shattered into pieces. Top seed Kentucky takes on No. 2 seed West Virginia here Saturday night for the right to go to the Final Four. It's been a decade-long slide from glory for the Wildcats since they won the title in 1998, but John Calipari, in his first season on the Kentucky bench, has his young team playing with the precision and drive of NBA lottery picks.
Which, of course, is what most of them are. Kentucky is stocked with four legit first-round draft studs, but more pertinent, it's the only true superpower still alive.
Cornell's trip to the Sweet 16 shouldn't be remembered as improbable. Stunning, yes, magical, sure, especially the way the 12th-seeded Big Red took apart Temple and Wisconsin, killing both favorites with a slew of daggers from beyond the arc. When Kentucky took away that weapon with high hands and a swarming, stifling defense that made it look as if Cornell was shooting over sequoias, Big Red was doomed.
The blaring stat from the box score was this: the nation's top 3-point shooting team was just 5 for 21 from 3-point land, continuously misfiring bullets, rushing shots and turning the ball over a staggering 15 times. But the bottom line, once the hurt dissipates, won't be found in bold type. It's been 31 years since an Ivy League team made it this far, but Cornell, top-heavy with seniors who'd taken four years to gel, proved it was more than legit.
"What this group accomplished is almost surreal, what's gone on the last two weeks. I know it sounds corny but they love each other more than any other team in this tournament, in my opinion. That's why we're good. That's crazy but that's why," said Donahue, the coach's eyes shining with pride.
With Syracuse, the Dome's regular tenants, hyperventilating in Salt Lake City, and Cornell's campus in Ithaca a mere hour drive away, the joint might as well have been a Big Red pep rally. Cornell rode the giddy vibe in spurts, planting picks for stop-and-drop jumpers for the early lead and then slicing a 17-point deficit to six late in the second half. A trey by Dale put Cornell within six, the score 40-34, Ryan Wittman nailed another to make it 46-37 with 3:47 left, but Kentucky was too long on the perimeter, too fast on the break, too aggressive on defense.
Too basketball savvy, in other words. Too, dare we say, genius.
"We just worked on closing out with high hands and trying to make (them) take tough twos," said Kentucky's Darius Miller, tremendous in holding Wittman scoreless across a 25-minute stretch.
In one of those quirky tales that link generations to the game, Calipari called Sam Cassell, the former NBA player, Wednesday night. Wittman's father Randy, the former Indiana and NBA star, just happened to be in the background, screaming, "My son is getting 50!" Calipari responded, "He can get 50, as long as we win by two, I don't care."
Ryan Wittman, hounded by Miller all night, finished with 10 points, just 2 for 7 from outside the arc. "If he's 3 for 7, it's a good night, that's how crazy basketball is," Donahue said. "Obviously we rely on making shots. That's how you're going to compete against that kind of athleticism. "
Wildcat freshman guard John Wall, who's only the best player in the country, finished with eight points on 4 of 9 shooting, most of his damage coming via his eight assists, after dishing 18 in Kentucky's first two games. His transition game, his vision on the open floor, had Cornell wiping its eyes and NBA scouts drooling. DeMarcus Cousins, another freshman who tends to give basketball junkies Wilt Chamberlain flashbacks, was a near-perfect 7 of 8 for 16 points, his greedy hands forcing four steals. The Wildcats broke loose for a flashy 30-6 first-half run, but it was their defense that made Calipari swoon.
"So you're playing the full 35 seconds and they're running back cuts, back-screens, side-screens, fade-screens, ball-screens, hand-offs, X cuts," Calipari said, without taking a breath. "They're doing it each time down the floor. We got in a little bit of trouble when they went that side guard, guard pick-and-roll and we started switching it and did better. But it takes a disciplined team. And that's what's amazing."
This is how Kentucky countered the prevailing pregame theme. Like basketballs on a rack, the clichés were lined up neatly. The Sweet 16 matchup was a culture clash of opposites, with one team ripe with seniors about to embark on normal jobs -- you know, aerospace engineers and neurosurgeons -- while the other team is carried by a bunch of barely-teens soon to be NBA millionaires.
"Basically, it's the smart kids vs. the dumb kids," Kentucky's Cousins had said, poking fun at the media's obsession over making everything into epic battle of good and evil. But after the game, Cousins was more direct, saying, "It just shows people are ignorant. What's that got to do with basketball? They're one of the smartest schools out there. They should have had that title for every game they play. We're just here to play basketball, and that's what we did." Still, the disparities couldn't be ignored: Kentucky has won seven national championships, has a basketball budget of $8.6 million and a $3.3 million designer coach. Cornell had never won a NCAA tournament game until last week, operates without athletic scholarships and was forced to cut this season's media guide from its meager athletic budget.
In truth, Kentucky and Cornell were as different as daybreak and sunrise, and it was possible to sit back and appreciate both. It was easy to marvel at Dale's perseverance and reflect back four years, to when he sent homemade videotapes and scrapbooks to schools, hoping for a shot. "It was like a sixth grader's project," Donahue recalled. "He had a little construction paper, stuck his name on there, putting pictures and articles from the [Birmingham] paper. We thought it was funny. You see so many digital services now. His was just old-school, which I like."
When Dale made his official visit to Cornell, he handed Donahue a $400 check, as a deposit for future tuition. "Here's what my mom said to give you," Dale had said. And every time Donahue tells the story, he beams with pride. "He was wearing braces, he looked like a 13-year-old, and he gives me a check!" Donahue said. "You hear so many crazy things that happen with recruiting. Well, this was one of them, but it was so refreshing."
Dale fouled out of the game with a minute left, finishing with 17 points and leaving to a nice standing ovation from a pseudo-hometown crowd. "At the end of the day, I would be satisfied with zero points and a W," he'd say later, once his college career was over.
And it was possible to watch in awe as Wall, the Kentucky freshman whose college career is also about to end, finished off a scintillating dunk with 43 seconds left on the clock, hanging on the rim for an extra tick. In a flash, he was at the other end of the court, soaring like Superman for a loose ball. He leaped over a media table, bodies and chairs and laptops flying everywhere, and Wall had to be helped out of the mess and up from the sticky floor. Of course he was fine, just like his team.