The last time Penn basketball faced off against Cornell on Feb. 13, the team scored its highest point total in a half since November 2008, exploding for 56 points in the final 20 minutes en route to a 92-84 win in Ithaca.
On Friday night, the Red and Blue picked up right where they left off.
Tremendous hands on defense catalyzed a game-opening 12-0 run for the Quakers, and Penn never looked back from there, leading for all 40 minutes en route to a 79-67 win and a season sweep of the Big Red.
“I’m just pleased that we can win late in the season,” said coach Steve Donahue, whose Quakers (11-13, 5-5 Ivy) have already eclipsed last season’s conference win total with four games still remaining. “I thought Cornell played really well for long stretches, but we made plays when we had to, competed the whole game.”
A series of steals from freshman guards Jake Silpe and Jackson Donahue combined with a stretch of remarkable ball movement on offense helped Penn strike early and often, putting the Big Red (9-16, 2-9) into a monumental hole early.
Cornell missed its first five three-point attempts of the night en route to going scoreless for the first 5:16 of the game, and when a Silpe three-pointer was followed by a quick Donahue steal and three Sam Jones free throws, the Quakers seized an immediate 12-point edge.
“We got a little careless with the basketball, and they were able to get steals that led to some buckets in transition for them,” Cornell coach Bill Courtney said. “I actually thought our defense did a pretty good job in the first half, but we didn’t give ourselves a chance.”
The Big Red threatened behind the efforts of junior guard Robert Hatter, who scored 12 of Cornell’s 22 first-half points, but sophomore guard Darnell Foreman wouldn’t let the Big Red within striking distance.
Holding Ivy League leading scorer Matt Morgan to a measly three first half-points, Foreman produced two points, three assists and a remarkable three steals to catalyze a 13-1 run in which five different players scored, as Penn’s dominance in the paint led to a comfortable 32-13 margin.
“Hatter and Morgan are so dangerous, so we were trying to shrink the floor with help and not allow them to split us,” Donahue said. “They’re really hard to guard, and Hatter had it going, but we did a good job for the most part on the defensive end.”
Although Cornell’s star guards briefly helped the squad claw back into it again, with Hatter and Morgan combining for seven points in a half-ending 9-0 run, Penn was once again able to stymie Cornell’s momentum in time, with a Jones and-one followed by a Donahue three-pointer stretching the lead back to 16 points early in the second period.
It was a cat-and-mouse game the rest of the way, with Hatter trying to carry his team to victory but finding himself unable to overcome a tremendously balanced effort from the Red and Blue.
Five Penn players ended up scoring in double figures — including 16 points and 10 rebounds from senior center Darien Nelson-Henry, who became the 47th player in program history to score 1,000 career points — while Hatter ended up scoring 31 of his team’s 67 points on the evening.
“We’d like a more balanced effort — it’s especially difficult when you get down, since [Morgan and Hatter] have such alpha mentalities and they’re going to take it upon themselves to try and get us back in the game,” Courtney said. “Obviously that’s part of what makes them such good players, but I’d like to see some other guys taking some of that responsibility.”
Cornell cut the lead to 59-54 on a three-pointer from JoJo Fallas, but that was as close as the Big Red would get, as Silpe hit a three on Penn’s next possession and the Red and Blue closed out from there, with an 11-for-12 free-throw shooting effort from Jones helping Penn seal the win.
“We fought and used so much energy to get back in the game, and it’s hard to make that next step and get over the hump,” Courtney said. “When Penn makes huge plays to stop our momentum, that kind of takes the air out of our sails.”
Next up, Penn will play its final home game of the year, hosting third-place Columbia (19-9, 8-3) on Senior Night in a rematch of a Feb. 12 63-53 Lions win.
And with a potential berth in the College Basketball Invitational or CollegeInsider.com Basketball Tournament at stake, there’s no shortage of motivation for the Red and Blue as they approach the final games of Donahue’s first season.
“We’re so excited about still playing, and the guys are having a lot of fun,” Donahue said. “We have some great goals that we can still accomplish — a winning record in the league, a winning record overall, getting to the postseason, being in the top three in the league — and those are big-time accomplishments for us, so we’re all proud of what we’re doing right now.”
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