NEW YORK – After a Saturday storm dumped more than a foot of snow on New York City, a garden would have figured to be one of the least desirable places to visit on Sunday.
That is, unless you’re a big basketball fan, where from noon until late Sunday evening, you could seek shelter from the winter weather while taking in a good tripleheader of holiday hoops, featuring four New York teams (three college and one pro) all at Madison Square Garden.
Holiday Festival – Part I: Cornell Stuns Davidson In Overtime Thriller
Sometimes, the best is saved for last, but not always.
Although most of the MSG action to follow was entertaining, you had to arrive early to catch the best game of Sunday’s triple bill.
The opening game of a long day of basketball featured a terrific college basketball mid-major matchup, with the Davidson University Wildcats meeting the Cornell Big Red, to begin the 58th annual Holiday Festival, the nation’s longest running holiday tournament.
Davidson (3-8), on the strength of three freshman, overcame a 17-point first-half deficit to grab a late two-point lead in the final seconds of regulation, but Cornell beat the buzzer once, to force overtime, and then had senior forward Ryan Wittman (who scored a game-high 29 points), make a running 30-foot three-pointer as the horn sounded, to give Cornell (8-2) a stunning 91-88 overtime win.
The game was so good down the stretch, even Cornell head coach Steve Donahue caught himself playing the role of fan as much as coach. “Obviously, I thought that was an excellent game to be a part of and to watch,” he said, after the game. “Both teams really play the right way and execute well. [Each team has] 21 assists [and just] 11 turnovers, making big play after big play. My initial reaction, and I can’t help myself, is to feel bad for the opponent sometimes because I thought they did everything they could to win the game. Obviously, I am extremely proud of our guys with the way they persevered to get a win.”
Early on, it wasn’t nearly that tough for Cornell, which grabbed a 15-5 lead after a 10-0 run, capped by three straight two-point field goals from Erick Peck (who wasn’t heard from much after that, finishing the game with eight point on 3-of-5 shooting from the floor).
Davidson later scored seven straight points to cut Cornell’s lead in half, 29-22, with 6:28 remaining in the first half, but the Big Red responded with four different players scoring in 12-2 run which gave Cornell the biggest lead of the game, 41-24, with 1:31 left in the half.
The Wildcats scored seven of the half’s final ten points though, with junior Brendan McKillop, (17 points, 6-11 fg, 5-8 3-pt. fg), the son of Davidson head coach Bob McKillop, beating the first half buzzer with a left wing three-pointer to pull his team to within 44-31 by halftime, and give Davidson some much-needed momentum which they rode in the second half.
Initially after the break, Cornell built the lead back up to a healthy 50-36, just 3:10 into the second half, but three freshman whose surnames together, sound more like a law firm — J.P. Kuhlman (17 points, 6-12 fg, 4-5 3-pt. fg) Jake Cohen (team-high 18 points, 8-17 fg), and Nick Cochran (8 points, 4-6 fg off the bench) –- helped lead Davidson back.
The first two of that young trio especially impressed Donahue. “I [think] Cohen and Kuhlman are both excellent basketball players.” He added of Davidson, as those two players continue to grow and develop, “In a month, you are going to see a really good basketball team. Both are good players and I thought they played great.”
Coach McKillop was also particularly proud of all three of his freshman who played significant roles, and of his team’s ability to come back. “When adversity struck, [we were] down 17 points, [we] have three freshman out there,” he said. They played with a great deal of savvy, they made mistakes, but they also played with great heart… they put themselves in position to win the game. The next time that happens, I know they are going to win the game.”
Playing the point, McKillop scored nine points on three treys while 6-foot-4 guard Kulhman and 6-foot-10 forward Cohen scored five points apiece, and 6-foot3 guard Cochran added four points during a 27-11 Davidson surge over a span of 10:27, which gave Davidson its first lead, 63-61, with 6:23 left in the second half.
Sophomore guard Chris Wroblewski (14 points, 4-9 fg, 3-7 3-pt. fg) tied the game at 63-all on a layup before things got really tense the rest of the way.
After a Wroblewski free throw gave Cornell a 66-65 lead with 4:41 left in regulation, the lead changed hands five times, and the game was tied twice, until Cohen missed the second of two free throws with Davidson ahead, 75-73.
Each team attempted 15 free throws in the game, but the Wildcats made just eight while the Big Red knocked down twelve.
Cornell threw the ball away and fouled Cohen again, but he missed two free throws, allowing senior point guard Louis Dale, who hadn’t scored all game, to go up the left sideline, the length of the floor, before scoring on a driving layup in traffic, beating the second half buzzer, to force overtime with the game tied at 75 apiece.
Dale then scored Cornell’s first five point in the extra session, to give the Big Red an 80-77 lead.
After Wroblewski and McKillop traded three-pointers, Wittman hit one of his own, to put Cornell up 86-82, with 1:25 left in the game.
Later, Kuhlman made a big three-pointer with 16.4 seconds left, to pull Davidson to within 88-87, and with 6.7 remaining, he tied the game at 88-88 on a free throw, but he missed a second foul shot, and that set the stage for the dramatic finish.
Seven-foot senior center Jeff Foote (16 points, 14 boards) grabbed the rebound and fired an outlet pass to Wittman, who raced across midcourt and pulled up on a straight-away 30-footer that swished through the net as time expired, sending a happy Cornell team onto the court to mob their hero.
Wittman (11-23 fg, 7-16 3-pt. fg) actually said the shot didn’t feel good when it left his hands. “To be quite honest, I thought I left it short, so I was surprised it went in, but I will take it.”
And, he’ll take the experience, especially given that it occurred on a stage which he’s not used to.
“It is pretty cool playing in the Garden” he said. “My first time here. It was a great college basketball game. Two teams playing hard, Lou makes a great play at the end of regulation just to put it into overtime. There are a lot of things I liked about that game. It was a lot of fun.”
Although Wittman wasn’t sure about the shot, his coach was. “I don’t know if I have ever been around a kid that one, is a great shooter and two, [who] wants that moment [all the time],” Donahue said. “I think he has terrific confidence. More than that, I think he realizes that is his role on this team. When he has the ball, in situations where he has to make plays, we call his number and to be honest with you, I knew it, when he released it, it was in.”
A great ending to a great way to escape a snowy Sunday at the Garden.
Or, as Coach McKillop, a New York native, put it, “Here is the greatest stage for basketball in America, Madison Square Garden, and they are playing the drama out there amidst the snow storm, Christmas, and the ambiance of New York, and that is the whole nine.”
Davidson was playing its first-ever Holiday Festival game while Cornell, which was playing in the tournament for the fourth time, and the first time since 1970, won its second Festival game in seven tries. The Big Red will seek its first-ever Holiday Festival title on Monday against St. John’s, while Davidson will meet Hofstra for third place.