Two 9-2 teams, tied for first in the Ivy League? Check. An emerging Ancient Eight rivalry? Check. A packed, noisy Lavietes Pavilion? Check.
Star power? Check. Sort of.
As Harvard and Cornell prepared to do battle for the top spot in the Ivy League and a potential trip to the NCAA Tournament last Saturday at Lavietes, all of the Crimson’s star power stood at the ready.
Now that’s another story, and one with an ending that left a Big Red faithful—substantial given the long drive from Ithaca, N.Y.—without much to cheer about.
Jeomi Maduka, who leads Cornell in scoring and rebounding with 14.1 points and 7.6 rebounds per game, was conspicuously absent on Saturday night.
During opening warm-ups, I scanned the Big Red layup lines, looking for Maduka. She had given Harvard fits in a February contest in Ithaca, pouring in 16 points and grabbing 11 boards in Cornell’s 85-61 win.
Where was she?
As it turns out, Maduka rushed home after Friday night’s heartbreaking 46-44 loss to Dartmouth—a defeat that thrust Harvard into a first-place tie with Cornell before Saturday’s game. Cornell’s two-sport star decided to forgo the second game of the weekend to compete in the Indoor Heps track and field competition in Ithaca.
Maybe it was the right call: Maduka set school records in the 60-meter dash, the long jump and the triple jump and was named the meet’s Most Outstanding Performer for the second straight year. Her performance in the long jump—the third-longest in the nation this year—set a meet record and easily eclipsed the NCAA automatic standard.
Saturday was a great day for Jeomi Maduka, but you can’t say the same for the Cornell women’s basketball team.
The Big Red entered last weekend in sole possession of first place in the Ivy League. Their quest was simple, self-guided: win four more games and go to the NCAA Tournament.
Cornell has never won an Ivy Title. Never gone to the NCAA Tournament.
It’s safe to call the Big Red’s game at Lavietes Pavilion the biggest game in the history of Cornell women’s basketball.
So where was Maduka?
Harvard athletes can’t even do what she did last weekend. Two-sport athletes at Harvard are not allowed to compete in both sports at the same time.
That’s not to mention that Maduka is a nightmare match-up for the Crimson defense.
In five career games against Harvard, she’s averaged 14 points a game. Her quick first step and skill on the glass expose the holes in the Crimson’s interior defense.
Maduka is one of the premiere players in the Ivy League—the main reason that Cornell, which finished an abysmal 3-24 three years ago, stood on the cusp of an uncontested Ivy League crown for the first time in school history.
Her absence on Saturday night is befuddling, almost unfathomable. Imagine LeBron bowing out before the Cavaliers take the floor to try to clinch a playoff spot. Or Matt Holliday staying home instead of making the game-winning slide that sent the Rockies to the NLDS.
How could Cornell’s biggest star—and biggest difference-maker—head home after the Big Red fell to Dartmouth on Friday and before facing a veritable title game against Harvard on Saturday?
Perhaps she made the decision a long time ago. Maybe Maduka dusted off the age-old “I trust my teammates to win this one” adage and put it to work before heading back all alone to snowy Ithaca.
Following Friday night’s loss, however, everything changed for Cornell.
The Big Red’s precious one-game lead disappeared, Harvard capped off a furious comeback with a 71-70 win over Columbia, and an emerging Ivy League grudge match—Red versus Crimson—would take center stage on Saturday night.
In the end, Maduka’s conflicting loyalties cost the Big Red a chance for its first-ever title.
Maybe Cornell even tried to get its star back to Cambridge in time for a Willis Reed-esque appearance late in the second half. Locked in a low-scoring slugfest with Harvard, the Big Red certainly could have used the boost.
But Maduka didn’t show up.
Cornell lost 51-48 in an ugly game of bricks, long rebounds, and a few clutch Harvard free throws down the stretch.
The endless string of hypotheticals can begin. What if she had been there? What if Dartmouth’s buzzer-beater had rimmed out on Friday night? What if Maduka had made it back to Cambridge for the final minutes of Saturday’s game?
But if Harvard sweeps Yale and Brown this weekend, the Crimson will clinch its third Ivy League championship in four years and second consecutive outright crown.
If that happens, Maduka will at least have the luxury of not having to choose between March Madness and the long jump.
My guess, though, is that she’ll wish she had the option.
—Staff writer Aidan E. Tait can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.