Call it a sign of life.
With its back up against the wall, Penn basketball responded against floundering Cornell by putting on a dazzling first-half offensive display and hanging on late to beat the Big Red (1-18, 0-5 Ivy), 90-83.
It was a drastic reversal of fortune for the Quakers (5-13, 2-2), who had previously been defined by their penchants for turning the ball over on offense and their inopportune fouls at the other end of the floor.
But the Friday night home matchup seemed to spark something in the Red and Blue.
Up 28-26 with 7:56 to go in the first half, Penn caught fire, going on a 22-6 run to close out the half and gain some much-needed breathing room.
Senior guard Miles Jackson-Cartwright scored 11 points during the run, including a backbreaking, buzzer-beating three pointer that he hit in traffic after stealing an errant Big Red inbounds pass with 4.6 seconds to play in the half.
Making life easier for Penn was a newfound ability to protect the basketball while rotating through its offensive sets. The Quakers turned the ball over only three times in the first half.
“We were just staying in attack mode and some shots started to fall down,” Jackson-Cartwright said of his team’s big run. “We got into a good rhythm early, we’re just trying to stay aggressive.”
But the second half told a far different story.
The turnovers and fouls picked up, and so did Cornell guard Nolan Cressler’s shooting percentage.
The sophomore guard caught fire just as Penn started throwing the ball away and hacking unnecessarily, drawing his squad to within five points in the second half after facing a deficit that had swelled to 19 points earlier in the period.
Cressler finished with 22 points, but his herculean effort begin to wear on him as time ran down.
“He got maybe a little winded at the end,” Cornell coach Bill Courtney said. “He missed his last four, five shots — shots that he normally makes … but he did a good job of picking his spots.”
Jackson-Cartwright, though — along with sophomore guard Tony Hicks — kept on humming, and would not let his team suffer the ignominy of being the first Division 1 school to fall to the Big Red all season.
With the lead down to five and 8:48 left to play, Jackson-Cartwright nailed an open three from the left elbow off a feed from Hicks to push the lead back to eight and restore a semblance of order.
Hicks would later tack on five points in 54 seconds as the clock dropped under five minutes to play to push the lead back to double-digits and effectively end any hope of a comeback.
Hicks led all scorers with 27 points and Cartwright added on 19 of his own, as Penn’s top two outside weapons came up big to help stop the Big Red’s run before disaster struck.
“I thought we responded [to Cornell’s rally],” Penn coach Jerome Allen said. “When they made their run, guys didn’t fold … we started to look for one another and we started to attack the basket.”
In a battle between two squads helmed by embattled coaches, Allen’s group was able to rally together and earn a much-needed victory.
But the Quakers won’t dwell on the triumph for too long.
“[Columbia’s] where all our focus is,” Allen said. “We can’t get ahead of ourselves if we start to think about the next task at hand.”