In the final tune-up before opening up conference play as the defending playoff champions, the Red Dragons impressively overwhelmed visiting Ithaca College in a surprising 103-65 blowout Tuesday evening.
“Our defense was there the whole game. It was a good 40 minutes,” noted junior guard James Morales, who connected on six of Cortland’s 16 made 3-pointers during his 22-point Corey Gymnasium performance that also featured a team-high eight assists.
“We held them to nine points over the first 10 minutes and held their best player, Chasin, to single figures… perfect,” added Morales, as dangerous Ithaca guard Marc Chasin scored just seven points on wayward 3-for-15 shooting. “If we bring that to the league it will be good. We’ll be tough to beat.”
Cortland will bring a 3-1 overall record into Saturday’s 2 p.m. visit to Oswego, that game a rematch of last year’s SUNY Athletic Conference championship won by the Red Dragons 77-74 on a last-second Morales trey.
Against an Ithaca squad that arrived in town with a 3-1 record coming off a four-point win at Skidmore a week ago, Morales scored 19 of his 22 points in the opening half — including making 5-of-6 shots from 3-point range — as the Red Dragons secured 50-23 control by the time intermission arrived.
Cortland ended up shooting 54 percent from the floor, came up with assists on 21 of its 39 baskets and turned the ball over a mere eight times as point guard Justin Cooper turned in another stellar performance.
Cooper had 17 points, 13 rebounds, five assists and a pair of steals while running this efficient Red Dragon show. The steady 6-foot-4 sophomore came into the game averaging 21.7 points, 10 rebounds and five assists per contest — and now has three double-doubles through four contests.
“When you have a guy at the point who is putting up the numbers and running the team like he’s running it, then he’s going to hopefully keep us in every game,” said Cortland head coach Tom Spanbauer of Cooper’s importance.
Cortland had four players reach double figures, guard Nicky Bonura coming off the bench to add 14 points featuring some 4-for-6 shooting beyond the arc while starting guard Michael Kelly finished with 13 points including a trio of treys.
Peter Ezema had 22 points and Matt Flood a dozen for the Bombers, Ezema’s 10-for-15 touch standing out for an Ithaca team that shot just 36 percent for the evening.
THE BOMBERS HAD an early 6-4 lead on a basket by Chasin, who had been the Cortaca Classic MVP after scoring 39 points — including the game-winning Ithaca basket — against Purchase College at this same Corey Gym site just 10 days ago.
Cortland then reeled off 10 unanswered points starting with a Morales 3-pointer from the top of the key. Kelly converted a drive to the rim, Cooper connected on a floater, Kelly drained a trey from the top of the key and Morales scored off a baseline drive and the Red Dragons were on their way.
“Without question our guys came out at the next level,” said Coach Spanbauer of Cortland’s impressive opening half.
“Not just physically. I thought our communication and our anticipation was outstanding,” he explained. “We took them out of any type of flow they were trying to get going. There were a lot of decisions, because we switched on everything, so the guys did an outstanding job anticipating switches and communicating the switches.”
Ithaca made just 10-of-31 first half shots and turned the ball over 10 times.
Over the final four minutes of the opening half, Morales was responsible for all 14 points scored by the Red Dragons. He swished a 3-pointer from the right flank, finished off a drive and then nailed a lengthy trey off an in-bounds play.
After setting up a Kelly 3-pointer with 40 seconds left in the period, and following an Ithaca traveling call with 13.3 seconds remaining, Morales closed the half with another 3-pointer for that 50-23 halftime bulge.
“We knew their tendencies on offense and defense and we had a good game plan, scouting report, coming into this game. We were prepared,” noted Morales, Cortland having seen the Bombers play in that Cortaca Classic where the two rivals were not matched up.
ITHACA DID PULL within 73-56 with just over nine minutes left to play, but would score just nine points the rest of the way. Bonura did most of his scoring down the stretch, and when back-up guard Paul Burke buried a 3-pointer with 2:18 left the Red Dragons had surpassed 100 points.
“One of the things that helped us tonight that is probably going to go unnoticed, when we scored we took a weapon away from Ithaca, meaning their transition. They’re a transition team,” said Cortland’s Spanbauer.
“You saw the times we didn’t convert around the rim and they ran it out and got easy baskets. The fact that we scored it tonight really was subtle, but a huge advantage to us. It took away what they liked to do,” he added.
That’s the benefit of shooting 16-of-34 from 3-point range, with Spanbauer noting Cortland’s execution created good scoring chances throughout.
“So this was a really good IQ game for us, but in the same breath we’ve got a lot of guys who have played. People say ‘you’re experienced’ and that’s what experienced people are suppose to do,” the coach said.
So it’s on to conference play, starting with the Oswego trip.
“Everyone is hyped for that. Coop (guard Cooper) going back to Oswego, that’s where he started freshman year, so he’s hyped for that. So it will be fun,” said Morales. “We’re definitely going up against a good team, a good coach, so hopefully we’ll come out with a win.”