JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — For 11 seconds, Wisconsin and Cornell were tied in Sunday’s game. Then Big Red forward Ryan Wittman hit a quick jumper, making it 2-0 in favor of Cornell.
That was just the beginning of the rout Sunday as No. 12 seed Cornell knocked off No. 4 seed Wisconsin 87-69 at Veterans Memorial Arena. The win was just the second NCAA victory in school history for Cornell, which will face the Kentucky Wildcats in the Sweet 16.
After Wittman hit the first shot of the game for Cornell, the Ivy League champions put on a shooting clinic over the final 39 minutes and 49 seconds.
“When you play a team that can shoot like they did, obviously 69 points just wasn’t good enough,” junior forward Jon Leuer said. “They were on fire.”
For the first half, Cornell shot 59.3 percent overall and 50 percent from the 3-point range. After halftime, the Big Red were even better, connecting on 63 percent of their attempts and 57.1 from long distance.
Wittman was particularly impressive, shooting 10-for-15 on the day and 3-of-5 beyond the arc. The senior from Eden Prairie, Minn., finished with 24 points, two assists and two steals.
Additionally, it was a game of milestones for Wittman, who broke his own school record for points in a season with 586 and became just the fifth player in Ivy League history to score 2,000 career points.
Afterward, Wittman credited his teammates for the performance.
“I got a lot of good looks,” Wittman said. “A lot of credit has to go to our bigs; Jeff Foote is one of the best screeners in the nation. … It seemed like every one of my baskets was coming off a ball screen or a dribble handoff from him.”
Yet, Wittman was not even the leading scorer in the game Sunday.
His fellow senior, guard Louis Dale, contributed a career-high 26 points on 10-of-17 shooting from the floor, while hitting 2-of-6 beyond the arc and a perfect 4-for-4 at the line.
Combined, the Cornell seniors has 50 points in the game while shooting 62.5 percent from the floor and 45.5 percent from the 3-point range. They also had five assists to just one turnover.
Following Wittman’s 2-point basket, Cornell made its next four shots to open the game a perfect 5-for-5 with an 11-1 lead just three minutes in. The rest of the way, Wisconsin never got closer than within three points, while the Big Red led by as many as 24 with 6:57 remaining in the second half.
“I do think getting off to a great start was key,” Cornell head coach Steve Donahue said. “I thought we did a great job of coming out and really knowing what Wisconsin was going to do. Go out and make plays. Be the aggressor. It just flowed.”
For Wisconsin early, the Badgers relied heavily on Leuer, who scored the team’s first 12 points. Leuer finished with 23 for the game, 14 of which came in the first half.
It was UW’s two senior guards, though, that sparked the Wisconsin offense. After Leuer’s second consecutive 3-pointer made it 18-12 at the 11:20 mark, Jason Bohannon and Trevon Hughes scored the team’s next nine points, cutting the lead to just three.
Cornell outscored Wisconsin 19-10 for the rest of the half, pushing the lead back to 12.
What makes the deficit even more impressive is that fact that Wisconsin finished the first half with 31 points on 52.2 percent shooting.
“It’s tough when you shoot 52 percent in the first half and you’re still down 12, and you’ve taken away Foote, and three of the threes they hit were off of offensive rebounds,” UW head coach Bo Ryan said. “That’s how good they are. They can beat you in so many different ways. So I give a lot of credit to Steve and especially the development of that team with all the seniors and the way they played off of one another.”
Over the first 7:44 of the second half, the teams traded baskets, keeping it at just a 13-point game at 56-44. But with an 11-0 run over the next 5:19, Cornell all but sealed the game.
Fittingly, the shot that put Cornell up 24 points and capped the run was a Wittman jumper.
From that point, the final seven minutes were just a formality. Cornell knew it was on its way to the first Sweet 16 appearance for an Ivy League team since 1979.
If you ask Ryan, that game might not be their last either.
“It was a tough matchup with Wittman, but we tried,” Ryan said. “But they have so many weapons that a team [that can] beat them is going to have to be a team that can get them a little deeper on their shots, get them out of rhythm on their cuts.”