ITHACA, N.Y. (AP) - Even in defeat, Steve Donahue felt something good might be brewing for his Cornell Big Red back in December.
After Syracuse dealt Cornell its third straight loss, 80-64 in the Carrier Dome three days before Christmas, the Orange's postgame analysis did wonders for a team searching for answers.
``The comments by the Syracuse guys were right on the money,'' Donahue said. ``They felt they could get any rebound, they felt they could get any shot. The blatant honesty - we really needed that. From that point on, we've been terrific.''
So terrific that Cornell (20-5, 12-0 Ivy League) has lost only one game since - at Duke - and last Saturday night clinched just the second Ivy League basketball title in school history with an 86-53 win over Harvard. That made the Big Red the first team in the nation to clinch a berth in the NCAA tournament.
``We kind of knew coming into the season that we had the potential to be a good team,'' said co-captain Adam Gore, a junior guard from Indiana. ``It wasn't until we got into the Ivy League season and got on a roll that our confidence really picked back up. Guys realize now that we have a chance to do some things.''
The road to the NCAA tournament is especially difficult for Cornell, which is located about 50 miles south of Syracuse in upstate New York. The Big Red must endure long bus trips to play conference road games scheduled on back-to-back weekend days so players miss as few classes as possible. And since the Ivy League is the only conference in the country that doesn't conduct a postseason tournament to determine its champion, the pressure is high each Friday and Saturday, when one shot can ruin a chance at the NCAA tournament.
That was never more evident than in a 72-71 victory at Harvard in mid-February. Crimson guard Jeremy Lin, a 25 percent 3-point shooter, made a 3 with 42 seconds remaining to give Harvard a 71-66 lead. Undaunted, Cornell sophomore Alex Tyler, who had committed a turnover with just over a minute remaining, made a putback, a hook that drew a goaltending call, and a layup in a 25-second span without a timeout.
``Not only do we win it in regulation, we win it with three field goals,'' Donahue said. ``The guys don't panic and throw a garbage 3 up there and get lucky. It was three executed plays. They did a terrific job of staying poised.''
That has seldom been the case. Since coach Mike Dement's 1987-88 Cornell team went 17-10 and 11-3 in the Ivy League to earn the school's second NCAA tournament bid (the 1953-54 team won the Eastern Intercollegiate Basketball League and the school's first NCAA berth two years before the Ivy League formed), the Big Red had just two winning seasons until going 16-12 and 9-5 in the Ivies in 2006-07 under Donahue.
In winning this year, Cornell broke through one of the most consistent monopolies in college basketball. Since 1969, Penn or Princeton have either won or shared the Ivy League title in all but three years.
``This wasn't a quick fix,'' said Donahue, who compiled a 74-117 record in his first seven years. ``I'm appreciative of the guys who built the foundation and then we were able to sell that same product to better players.''
And Donahue takes his sales pitch to new places, trying to avoid banging heads in the Northeast because there are so many options for prospective players.
``We can go find kids that are a Cornell fit, and that's basically the Midwest,'' said Donahue. ``We have a Big Ten-type of campus, and I thought those kids would appreciate it.''
A key example: his leading scorer is sophomore forward Ryan Wittman, who grew up in Minnesota the son of the NBA's Timberwolves head coach Randy Wittman, a former Big Ten Player of the Year at Indiana.
Donahue traces the turnaround to a horrific accident in practice two years ago. Guard Khaliq Gant dislocated two vertebrae in his neck in a collision with two teammates that left him temporarily immobile. He underwent a seven-hour operation to fuse the vertebrae and secure them with plates and screws and has since recovered. Although his playing days are over, Gant remains an integral part of the team as manager.
``That was the low point. There were a lot of defections from the team, and we were still trying to find ourselves,'' Donahue said. ``From that point on, actually, we've become a much better team. I don't know why that is, but since that accident and his miraculous recovery, this has been spiraling upwards.''

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