How Colgate overcame a 17-point deficit to stun Cornell

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 06: Head coach Bill Cleary of the Colgate Raiders signals his players during a women's college basketball game against the American University Eagles at Bender Arena on January 6, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 06: Head coach Bill Cleary of the Colgate Raiders signals his players during a women's college basketball game against the American University Eagles at Bender Arena on January 6, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images) /

Colgate makes a stunning comeback

Colgate’s Haley Greer nailed a dramatic three-pointer with 38.2 seconds left to give the Raiders a 58-56 lead they would not relinquish as they edged Cornell, 62-58 in Ithaca. The shot capped an intense comeback victory from a 17-point second half deficit. Greer finished with 10 points, with seven of those coming in the decisive fourth quarter. She was one of three players in double-figures for the Colgate.

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The win moved the Raiders to 3-0 on the season while the Big Red dropped to 1-2. The game was the 39th meeting between the two local rivals and just the second win for Colgate in Ithaca for 17 years. Cornell leads the series 22-17.

Lies, damned lies, and statistics

The numbers always tell a story—just not the whole story. The game statistics are nearly all Cornell: the Big Red had a 47-34 rebounding edge; led for over 35 minutes of the contest; and held Colgate to just 15.4% from three-point range (4 for 26).

Colgate shot just 33.8% overall for the game. They were edged on second-chance points and points in the paint. And they trailed 39-24 at the half.  But there’s no category in the box score for heart and hustle, or grit.  Or a tweak or two from a coach. And on those counts, they stuffed the stat sheet.

What happened?

The Big Red kept Colgate’s offense off balance by switching defenses and rode a hot-shooting performance of 51.6% into a 39-24 halftime advantage. The Raiders’ 2-3 match-up zone was a step behind, struggling to keep up with the pace of Cornell’s offense and also yielding eight offensive rebounds by the half.

Trailing 41-24 early in the third quarter, Colgate made a 7-0 run, capped by two free throws from senior Rachel Thompson to spur the comeback. They also made a key defensive adjustment to turn the game in their favor. “At one point in the third quarter, we had a line-up in there–even though we were getting outrebounded—where we went really, really small,” said Colgate Head Coach Bill Cleary. “And that helped lead the comeback because we ended up capitalizing on our speed there.”

That coaching adjustment helped close out a 19-7 quarter to trim the lead to three heading into the fourth quarter.

Coffee is for closers

Someone get Coach Cleary a latte. His team is closing games with efficiency in the fourth quarter this season.  The Raiders are outscoring their opponents 69-39 in that quarter on the season and shooting 57.9% from the field (22 for 38), including 11 for 20 from three-point distance.

Senior Tegan Graham’s baseline jumper gave the Raiders their first lead of the game at 54-53 with 2:55 remaining and that fourth quarter magic was on full display. Following Greer’s dramatic three pointer with 38.2 seconds left, Colgate made a key defensive stop against a Cornell team that looked worn down at the end. Greer and junior Nia Ahart each converted two free throws to ice the late-game comeback.

Colgate saved their best for last again and shot a game-best 45.5% from the floor on the road, outscoring the Big Red 19-12 and stealing a key early-season win. The defense shared in the spotlight in the final frame, holding its opponents to 25.0% from the floor and forcing seven turnovers. Cornell committed 29 turnovers for the game.

Our squad is bigger than yours

Cleary points to his team’s strength in numbers when it comes to fourth quarter success. “We’re not afraid to play 10 or 11 kids,” says the fourth-year mentor. “So we’re always more fresh going to into the fourth quarter because a lot of teams play 7 or 8 kids.”

If one of those players on the floor is Rachel Thompson, fourth quarters should continue to go well for Cleary and his squad. She finished the game with season-highs of 21 points and 14 rebounds. But it was her second half performance that gave the Raiders a 3-0 start for the first time since 2009. Cornell had no answer for Thompson as she posted 16 points, 10 rebounds, 3 assists, and 3 steals—in the second half.

There’s no ‘I’ in team

“We’re focused on staying together even when we do hit some rough patches in games, says Thompson who led the comeback. “We had to make sure we didn’t change how we played, or what we did, or change the game plan.  We just had to make sure that we trusted ourselves and the coaches.”

Thompson is leading the way for the Raiders with 15.3 PPG and 9.7 RPG through three games. But she’s also tops with 17 assists and is finding teammates and sharing the ball. She entered the season as one of five named to the Preseason All-Patriot League Team. Thompson is Colgate’s first preseason selection since 2005-06.

What does this mean moving forward?

It may not be a signature win, but teams usually have that early-season game to point to that pushes their season in one direction or another. And a 17-point comeback win on the road is certainly that type of game for Colgate. Will there be more success on the horizon? The elements are there:

Mentally strong performance? Check.

Star player being a star (say hello to Rachel Thompson)? Check.

Seniors playing clutch in big moments? (Abby Schubiger, Haley Greer, Tegan Graham) Check.

Commitment to defense? Check.

Four more recruits signed this week? Check.

A team believing in each other? Check.

Thompson summed up the spirit of their approach and belief after the game. “The reason why we did comeback is because we believed we could win this, she said. “Everyone was encouraging each other so you know if we made a bad shot or a turnover, it was always moving onto the next play, the next possession.” That next play and next possession will be this weekend when Colgate hosts Yale for another Ivy League-Patriot League clash.

Game notes:

  • Cornell Head Coach Dayna Smith is now 23-22 versus the Patriot League and 189-279 overall in her 18th season in Ithaca.
  • Abby Schubiger scored a season-high 13 points in the win.
  • Colgate won the last meeting, 74-70, on November 16th, 2017 to end a six-game win streak for Cornell (last year’s contest was cancelled due to weather).
  • Rachel Thompson claimed six steals for the second consecutive game.
  • Game marks the first three-game win streak for Colgate under Head Coach Bill Cleary.
  • Patriot League member Lafayette will play Cornell in Ithaca on December 1st.
  • The Raiders made 12 steals for the third consecutive game.
  • Ivy League member Yale University is next up for the Raiders on Saturday and will be carried on the Patriot League Network.

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