For some people, Friday the 13th signifies a day of bad luck. The Cornell women’s basketball team hopes that the opposite is true. The Red will put superstition aside and tip its season off tonight against the Duquesne Dukes at Newman Arena at 7 p.m. Two days later, the Red will be at it again, this time facing off against the cross-town rival Ithaca Bombers on Sunday at 1 p.m.
Friday will mark the first time that Cornell has opened its season at home under head coach Dayna Smith’s watch, something that bodes well for the team as it tries to get off to a fast start in 2009-10. Smith’s team has played outstandingly at home in recent years, going 24-13 at Newman Arena over the past three seasons
“Our home court and our home fans have been kind to us and we’ve been pretty successful the past couple years,” Smith said. “Hopefully we can continue with our home winning ways.”
Nearly a year ago, the Red suffered its most lopsided defeat of the 2008-09 season, 93-49, at the hands of the Dukes in Pittsburgh, Pa. Tonight, the Red will look to avenge that loss in front of the Newman Nation.
In order to do so, however, the Red will need to stop the high-flying Duquesne offense. The Dukes, out of the Atlantic-10 Conference, scored over 100 points in an exhibition win against West Liberty State a week ago and the team seems to be doing just fine since losing last season’s leading scorer and starting point guard, Kristi Little, to graduation.
“Duquesne has done a great job filling in for [Little],” Smith said. “It seems like they haven’t missed a beat.”
Cornell’s transition defense will need to be at the top of its game in order to slow down Duquesne’s speedy backcourt. Keri Pryor, Smith said, is just one of the guards that Cornell will need to contain if it wants to be successful this evening. Pryor, a three-year starter for the Dukes, averaged 11.3 points per game as a junior last season and appears poised to fill in the void left by Little’s absence.
The Red will have its hands full in the frontcourt, as well; Samantha Pollino gives the Dukes a powerful presence in the post. The junior forward scored 22 points in the Dukes’ win against the Red last season.
“[Pollino] killed us last year,” Smith said. “She’s really tough and athletic inside. We need to make sure we’re not giving her any easy looks and we need to make her work for the ball down low.”
On the other side of the ball, the emphasis for the Red will be on offensive execution.
Featuring six freshmen and just four upperclassmen, the Cornell women’s basketball team is a relatively young squad, and, as with most young teams, the Red expects to experience its fair share of growing pains throughout the year. Smith’s goal, therefore, is for her team to minimize its mistakes through focus and execution.
“We’ve seen moments in practice where we’ve been great and we’ve executed perfectly …and then we’ve seen moments where we haven’t been very disciplined,” Smith said. “We just need to stay focused and to try to get better at doing the little things.”
Despite the insurgence of youth on the team’s roster, Cornell doesn’t lack its fair share of veteran experience. Starting guard Lauren Benson is one of three senior captains for the Red who will provide the team with leadership throughout the season.
“Obviously Duquesne and Ithaca are going to be good teams,” said Benson, who will be pursuing the all-time Cornell assists record throughout her senior year, “but for us, [this weekend] is going to be about focusing on ourselves. We need to prepare ourselves for the Ivy League season because that’s our ultimate goal.”
Senior Allie Fedorowicz, another starting guard and team captain for the Red, reemphasized Benson’s points and suggested that the pieces may already be falling into place.
“We’re focusing a lot on ourselves and what we can do. If we [do that], I think we’ll do well this weekend,” said Fedorowicz, who started every game for the Red last season and led the team in scoring, averaging 11.4 points per contest.
“We came into the preseason with a lot of new faces, but everyone threw themselves into our game plan and what we are all about. I think we’re as prepared as we could be at this time.”
Cornell will find out how prepared it really is in just a few hours, but if the results aren’t what were desired, the team will have another chance to get its first win in front of the home crowd on Sunday against cross-town rival Ithaca College. The two teams have faced off just once since the 1987-88 season, resulting in a 66-38 win for the Red three seasons ago.
Although the two teams may not be too familiar with each other on the court, Smith acknowledges that her team is familiar with the Bombers’ recent string of success.
“They’re tough,” the coach said. “They have a tradition of winning and are coming off a good year.”
Ithaca, a Division III school in the Empire 8 Conference, did indeed have a good season last year; the team (finishing with a record of 19-10) made it all the way to the Eastern College Athletic Conference Upstate New York championship game and came up just short of winning the title. Smith expects Ithaca to once again be at the top of its game this season.
“They have some solid guards back and some senior leadership,” Smith said. “Any time you have seniors that have been in the program for three to four years and have tasted success, they’re able to carry that with them year to year and pass some of that down to the younger players.”
Bombers’ guard Katherine Bixby is one of the seniors that Smith was referring to. Bixby enters this season as Ithaca’s leading scorer, averaging of 11.9 points per game last year.
As for Cornell’s players, many are excited for the opportunity to face a local team.
“It’s always nice to play a hometown team. It’s like a battle of Ithaca,” Fedorowicz said. “It will be a fun game and it will give us the chance to have some bragging rights.”