NEW YORK – It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
If anyone figured to beat St. John’s in the annual Holiday Festival, it figured to be Hofstra, which defeated the Red Storm in the Festival title game in 2006, the fourth consecutive time that St. John’s had lost to its cross-town rival.
But, on Sunday, the Red Storm rallied from five points down with just under seven minutes remaining to beat the Pride by twelve, and reach the 2009 Holiday Festival championship game on Monday night.
So, finally getting by the local area nemesis of the current decade (before Sunday, St. John’s was 2-5 against Hofstra this decade after going 19-0 against the Pride previously), playing an Ivy League representative like Cornell figured to be a matchup that would yield St. John’s, appearing in the tournament for the 44th time, its 15th Festival title — especially against a Cornell team which had never won that tournament, and hadn’t played in it since 1970.
Not so fast.
That Ivy League school not only has its superior academic reputation, but it can teach a Big East team like St. John’s a few lessons on the basketball court as well.
Such as the values of ball movement, finding teammates, shooting the ball efficiently, possessing a balanced inside-outside offensive attack, solid defense, and being well-coached.
It also doesn’t hurt to get off on the right Foote… yes, that’s with a capital “F” and a silent “e,” as in Jeff Foote, Cornell’s very tough-to-deal-with, 7-foot, 245-pound senior center who was named the 2009 Holiday Festival Most Valuable Player.
At least for one night, Foote, along with several others, helped make the Big Red (9-2) better than the Red Storm (9-2), in Cornell’s 71-66 comeback win at Madison Square Garden.
At first glance, some of the numbers in this game could be deceiving, but a deeper look shows how much better the Cornell offense operated versus how much St. John’s struggled to achieve the same offensive output from the field.
Each team made 24 field goals, and each sank 11 three-pointers.
However, Cornell was much more efficient, dishing out 18 assists while shooting a blistering 57 percent (24-for-42) from the field, including 61 percent (11 of 18) from three-point range.
In contrast, St. John’s shot 42 percent (24 of 57) from the floor, going 44 percent (11 of 25) from beyond the arc.
Behind junior guard Dwight Hardy’s 13 points early on, the Red Storm made 7 of its first 9 three-pointers while jumping out to a 33-22 lead with 5:36left in the first half. Hardy wouldn’t score again until late in the second half, finishing the game with a team-high 19 points.
Meanwhile, Foote (19 points, 8-10 fg, 11 rebounds, 5 blocks) scored 6 points during a 9-3 Cornell run to close the first half, pulling the Big Red to within 36-31 at halftime.
From that point on, St. John’s couldn’t shake Cornell, and at a few points in the second half, the fairly small yet loud contingent of Big Red supporters made the quarter-filled Garden sound more like a Cornell home game on St. John’s own floor.
Behind the continued inside threat of Foote and hot perimeter shooting of 6-foot-7 senior Jon Jaques (game-high 20 points, 7-8 fg, 5-6 3-pt fg), Cornell built a 57-51 lead on a beautiful up-and-under reverse layup by Foote with 7:35 left in the game.
St. John’s wouldn’t go away, and the Red Storm tied the game at 60-60, but Foote’s basket with 2:26 left put Cornell ahead to stay, 62-60.
Jaques’ right wing three-pointer after some nice ball movement by Cornell, gave the Big Red a 67-62 lead 31.4 seconds remaining.
A right-corner trey by Hardy pulled St. John’s to within 69-66 with 15.5 seconds left, but free throws sealed the first ever Holiday Festival championship for Cornell.
Foote, who averaged 17.5 points, 12.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists, and 2.5 blocks in the two-day tournament, almost couldn’t believe he was named the MVP.
“It’s surreal,” he said. “I have only been MVP once before and it was a high school tournament. To be MVP on this stage is unreal. It was extra nice [at Madison Square Garden]. My brother got to see me and my parents were watching on TV, so [that] made it all worth it.”
In terms of the larger picture, the win, Cornell’s seventh straight victory this season, was a huge one for its program, as it snapped a 40-year, 46-game drought against Big East opponents, and drew high praise from St. John’s coach Norm Roberts, who said, “Give them a lot of credit. They made some huge shots. They’re a good basketball team, without a doubt, [a potentially tough] NCAA tournament team,” which Roberts added “could beat [almost] any team in the country” when it’s playing as well as it did against St. John’s on Monday night.
“This is a huge step for our program,” Cornell head coach Steve Donahue said. “Here’s a team that’s on a roll [St. John’s came in 9-1 with its only loss at Duke] and we play them at their place, at Madison Square Garden, in a very prestigious tournament, in front of a lot of alums. It’s a huge step, I feel great for [our players]. To win in this venue, in this environment, is awesome.”
A word of caution to anyone else which might lie in the way of Cornell taking further steps, such as a potential weak three or four seed who might draw Cornell on that 13 or 14 line come March.