The shooters inside the Palestra were as hot as the air outside the old building was cold. If you survived the elements and made it to 33rd Street last night, you saw a mid-February kind of game 3 nights before Christmas.
Cornell threw the first punches. Saint Joseph's started firing back, kept punching, absorbed some counterpunches when it looked as if they had control late, got the better end of a 50/50 block/charge call with 20.9 seconds left and ultimately won it, 71-67.
"They're going to be a postseason team," St. Joe's coach Phil Martelli said. "We're well aware of that. And they're playing shorthanded."
Early, the Hawks were dizzy chasing Cornell's cutters while trying to cover the three-point line. It was a lose-lose proposition. With 4 minutes left in the first half, the defending Ivy League champs were shooting 67 percent, moving the ball like five magicians and looking very much like a team that can win outside the Ivy.
Only the Hawks, after trailing 20-7 early, became more than just spectators. They were attacking, too; scoring 14 points over five perfect possessions (an and-one by Tasheed Carr, threes by Darrin Govens and Bryant Irwin, a layup by Irwin and a trey from Carr).
Ahmad Nivins, ignored early, got involved about the time Cornell's 7-footer Jeff Foote went to the bench with two fouls, apparently becoming more visible to his teammates. Scoring every kind of way (lob dunks, follows, spin moves, 15-foot jumpers), the 6-9 Nivins got off and had 10 by halftime, 20 just 6 minutes into the second half, and 26, along with 16 rebounds, for the game.
"I had to take him out in the first half because he was whining about the ball," Martelli said. "He's still not all the way there yet. There are still play-calls he misses. But, for 10 games, he's been as good as he can be in our league."
The coach has never had a big guy like him.
"To be honest, most of my big guys set screens and get the hell out of the way," Martelli said.
Nivins is not like that.
Foote, who had 25 Saturday in a win over La Salle, finished with eight points and had to try to deal with Nivins at the other end. Nivins often got lost last season and he spent the summer discovering different ways to make himself visible and effective.
"I did not want to come back being invisible, staying married to the blocks, complaining about not getting the ball and not being a factor on defense," Nivins said.
He is doing everything he worked on. His game has expanded. Still, his team is just 5-5.
"We've still got a lot more basketball to play," Nivins said. "I know we have the talent to be much better than a .500 team."
Just before halftime, St. Joe's actually got a one-point lead before Cornell's amazing Ryan Wittman (16 points) nailed an impossible shot while falling over the baseline and seemingly shooting over the backboard at the halftime buzzer, giving Cornell a 33-32 lead.
St. Joe's looked as if it had the game, leading 58-51 with 7 1/2 minutes left. Only Cornell scored the next nine points. The Hawks then scored the next 10 and held on in the final minutes.
The difference was the Hawks' ability to keep plays alive and get second-chance points. They finished with 22 of them to just eight for Cornell. Nivins and frontcourt partner Idris Hilliard combined for 40 points and 26 rebounds (14 offensive). It was enough, barely.
"We scrambled so much to try to take them out of their rhythm, not let Nivins get easy touches," Cornell coach Steve Donahue said. "Meanwhile, he gets nine offensive boards. I think we picked our poison there."
Cornell (5-6) has been playing shorthanded most of the season. Point guard Louis Dale, the reigning Ivy Player of the Year, was playing in just his third game (second with serious minutes) after suffering a hamstring injury. Dale had 15 points, but is better than he played. Adam Gore, a very good third wheel, will not play until sometime in 2009 because of an ACL injury.
"I thought it was a well-played game and they deserved to win," Donahue said. "I thought if Louis could have played the other eight games his teammates played, then he would have been more like the Louis you will see. That being said, I thought St. Joe's was really good when they had to be." *