Throwback Thursday-61 Years Ago, Big Red Basketball was Making a Playoff Run
These days, the gym in Bartels Hall remains mostly quiet, after Cornell’s basketball team failed to reach the postseason. Unfortunately, a remarkable rebound year for the Big Red came to a close after dropping the last two contests at the hands of Princeton and Penn, respectively. However, this was hardly the case this time 61 years ago, when the entire campus was buzzing with the anticipation of playoff basketball.
Heading into the final week of play in March 1954, the Cornell Big Red held a one-game lead over the Princeton Tigers in the Eastern Intercollegiate Basketball League (now the Ivy League). On March 7, the Big Red took a big step towards clinching their first league title in 30 years by defeating the defending champion Penn Quakers 57-56 in overtime. However, “The Cagers,” as they were referred to at the time, ended up losing the next day to Princeton to set up a dramatic, championship-deciding game the next day in Philadelphia.
On that day, March 9, 1954, the Big Red were able to pull out a win in what is still one of the most iconic games in program history. The game teetered back and forth throughout, yet the Big Red were able to accumulate a six point lead heading into the final quarter. However, the Princeton Tigers fought back in the final frame to tie the game with only two minutes left to play. At that point, the ball, and the game, was placed in the hands of Lee Morton to set up the final play (pre-shot clock era). Morton, the senior captain who scored 22 of the Big Red’s 46 points, let the clock wind down to 14 seconds before calling a timeout. Out of the break, the ball found its way to Henry Buncom, who hit a 20-foot hook shot as time expired to break the tie and seal the championship for the Big Red.
The nail-biting finish in Philadelphia capped off an 11-3 championship season for the Big Red, and earned them a bye in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. However, they would fall a few days later to Navy in the second round by a score of 69-67. Nonetheless, the events that took place in March 1954 hold a special place in Cornell Basketball history.