MOON TOWNSHIP — Every day at the North Athletic Complex Robert Morris men’s basketball senior guard Matty McConnell worked on a specific three-point shot with assistant coach Tray Woodall, in which he would take a couple of dribbles to just beyond the three-point line, rise and fire for a triple.
In Tuesday’s first-round CIT against Cornell, the practice came in handy as the situation came into play during the overtime period.
True to form, McConnell went up for the shot and buried it, giving Robert Morris a nine-point advantage.
“I was feeling it a little bit after the first two and I knew the defender was off me,” he said. “I’ve been working on that shot and it just went in. I would say that was one of the biggest shots I’ve hit in my four years here.”
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Exactly six years ago at Robert Morris, the team was able to hold off defending NCAA Tournament champion Kentucky in a first-round NIT matchup and Tuesday it came back from 12 points down to defeat Cornell 98-89 in overtime.
This is the second time Robert Morris has advanced to the CIT’s second round and first since 2012.
“Obviously a wild game, not a whole lot of defense by either team but we got a few stops when we switched to the zone,” Robert Morris coach Andy Toole said. “I thought down the stretch our guys got into it and got energized and sometimes that’s what it takes to get over the hump.”
Robert Morris senior guard Josh Williams scored a game-high 36 points for the Colonials (18-16) including 13 of the last 15 points in regulation. McConnell had 27 points, 11 of which came in the overtime period. Sophomore guard Jon Williams added a career-high 20 points and six assists while junior forward Yannis Mendy added 11 rebounds.
Both McConnell and Josh Williams provided leadership both on the court and during timeouts which helped the team
“There’s a lot of desperation,” Josh Williams said. “For (McConnell) to have another chance to play the game is an opportunity not many seniors get. Help make it a special time for him, why not top it off with a win and hopefully another coming up?”
Cornell (15-16) was led by sophomore forward Jimmy Boeheim’s career high 31 points, while senior guard Matt Morgan scored 24 points and added six assists in his final collegiate game.
The Big Red had a two-pronged attack in the first half in Boeheim and Morgan as the duo totaled 31 of the team’s 40 first-half points.
“That style is so hard to prepare for on a short prep,” said Toole. “Our loss to FDU, some lighter practices during the week and now you’re going to play a team with a unique style offensively. We were just a step slow on everything and that is how their offense is predicated.”
Boeheim of course is the son of Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim and he recorded 23 first-half points, one off a career high while also matching a career high with 10 made field goals. Boeheim also was a perfect three-for-three on his shots from deep.
Though Robert Morris missed its first five three-point shot attempts, it was able to rally by stringing shots together, trailing by a 40-37 halftime score.
For it’s part, Robert Morris shot 41.2% from the field in the first half, a sign that the offense was clicking, it just came down to the other end of the court and trying to contain both Boeheim and Morgan.
Cornell’s playing style is one Robert Morris never faced in NEC play and a look that Toole tries to avoid scheduling as much as possible.
Part of the key to stopping Cornell’s dynamic duo was a defensive switch into a zone and though the numbers show Cornell shot 69.6% from the field in the second half, many of those points were coming from other players and Robert Morris was daring them to shoot.
“You definitely focus on those two individuals a lot more and I think we disrupted their flow and in turn it disrupted the whole team,” Josh Williams said. “It was hard for other players to make plays for themselves to get going.”
Robert Morris would trail by as many as 11 points in the second half, but McConnell’s leadership, some steady shooting and timely defensive stops while Boeheim was out allowed the Colonials back into the game.
When Jon Williams buried a three-point shot, Robert Morris trailed by one point and Cornell called a timeout.
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Coming out of the timeout, Jon Williams stole the ball and made a transition layup, which gave RMU its first lead of the contest.
From there, the lead was tossed back and forth. Robert Morris led by three points inside of the final minute but Morgan’s floater with 12 seconds to play tied the game.
Robert Morris had two chances to win the contest in regulation but Josh Williams was short on a three-point shot and Charles Bain’s putback was too strong and danced out of the rim, which meant the game would go to overtime.
During the huddle, Josh Williams reminded his team to calm down and that the game was tied and far from over.
“We were a lot more locked in,” he said. “I think guys just realized that we’re going to be here, why not compete, why not win. That’s a big thing. I think it really hit once we went into overtime.”
Just 19 seconds into the overtime, Robert Morris struck on a Jon Williams two and shortly after, McConnell sank his first three-point basket, a catch-and-shoot effort towards the right side of the line.
On the next possession, McConnell made another catch-and-shoot three, this one from the right corner.
After Morgan missed a three-point shot of his own, McConnell was able to make his third three, which gave RMU a nine-point lead as Cornell called a timeout.
“When Matty made his third three in a row, I think everyone exhaled and thought that maybe there were not enough possessions left for them to score,” said Toole. “That was what I was feeling at that point myself.”
At halftime, Robert Morris had 14 rebounds beside its name and was a -5 on the glass, but by the end of overtime, it turned that deficit into a 40-32 advantage. The Colonials are now 8-0 when grabbing 40 or more rebounds this season.
“I don’t think we did a good job in the first half on the boards,” McConnell said. “Malik (Petteway) had seven rebounds in the second half, and had a couple of rebounds. He had a huge one when we went on that run. I think we did a much better job in the second half on the boards and I think that was what propelled us to victory.”
Robert Morris will next play a to-be-determined opponent as the CIT does not have a formal bracket. RMU should learn its second-round opposition within the next 48 hours.