For Steve Donahue, Newman Arena holds a lot of memories and a lot of familiar faces.
In the first-year Penn coach’s return to Cornell, where he coached for a decade, Penn defeated Cornell, 92-84, to give Donahue his first win against his former program. Freshman guard Jackson Donahue led the team in scoring in the high-scoring affair with a career-high 25 points.
“For 10 years it was great, I saw some of the people, but I never saw the banner from the Sweet Sixteen,” Donahue said of his return to Newman Arena. “There’s a heck of a mural with all of our guys from the 2010 team, so from that part it was great.”
Cornell, for its part, gave Penn a tough fight from buzzer to buzzer. The Big Red played a fast-paced high-intensity game, engaging in a full-court press that flustered Penn at times but also allowed for a handful of easy fast break baskets.
With 27 seconds left, Penn led by just two points after a layup from Cornell junior guard Robert Hatter. Free throws from Donahue and sophomore forward Sam Jones would ice the game for the Quakers in a night where the team couldn’t miss from the line. Penn shot 82.9% from the line on 35 attempts.
“It’s younger guys coming of age, Matt Howard [who shot 10-for-11 from the line] changing roles since Antonio [Woods] left and feeling more confident that he can take it,” Donahue said. “It’s critical when we’re playing that hard and frantic that when we go to the line we make them.”
For most of the game, though it looked as if Cornell were essentially playing 2 on 5 on offense, with scoring flowing through Hatter and freshman Matt Morgan. The pair finished the game with 49 of the Big Red’s 84 points and tallied all but 5 of the team’s points in the first half.
The pair currently rank second and first, respectively, in the Ivy League in scoring at 18.2 and 18.9 points per game and it showed on Saturday night.
“They’re so good at going off the dribble and they’re so confident. Morgan gets it going in the first half and what he does so well is get fouled,” Donahue said. “Those two kids, in particular Morgan, I give Bill [Courtney] a lot of credit, he’s instilled a lot of confidence in those kids.”
Coming out of the gate, it was Penn on fire. The Quakers sprinted out to a 21-11 lead in the first nine minutes of play, shutting down Cornell on all fronts. As the first half progressed though, Morgan took over.
With a mixture of pull-up jumpers and tough takes to the basket, the freshman scored 16 points over the next 11 minutes, finishing the half with 20 of his game-high 28. As Penn struggled to shoot, Morgan and junior guard Robert Hatter brought the Big Red back into the game, tying it up at 25 and trailing by just 1 point at the half.
While Penn would manage to lead for most of the game, Cornell hung tough throughout, never allowing the Quakers to build a significant lead.
For the second straight game, senior center Darien Nelson-Henry was possessed by the spirit of a point guard. The center matched his career-high — set Friday night against Columbia — with six assists and continued to find his guards cutting to the hoop for great looks.
“Both of the way the teams played their ball screens, […] that was a chance to get a lot of pocket looks.” Nelson-Henry said. “They were playing it two ways where it allows me to come to the ball and make the decisions that […] led to some open shots.”
Among the other stories of the night for Penn was a first half shooting drought from three-point land, where the Quakers went just 2-for-15 before turning it around to shoot 5-for-9 in the second half. A large part of that came from Jackson Donahue, who has continued to impress in a starting role.
“He’s someone that I can really be honest with. He’s someone I can go to and I did that in the first half. We were [struggling] from three and he had open looks and he’s jack-knifing them and pulling back,” Steve Donahue said. “A good shooter stays there and is consistent every time and you need to be that. He came out in the second half and did that.”
In coach Donahue’s return to Cornell, it was almost fitting that another Donahue stole the spotlight. While it was surely an emotional event for the veteran head coach, who hadn’t visited the arena since leaving in 2010, he didn’t want tonight to be all about him.
“[Donahue] didn’t make [the importance] apparent at all. He didn’t want to bring that unnecessary pressure onto us for this game,” Nelson-Henry said. “But I think we all knew it and we wanted to come in here and prove something to him and Penn basketball and Cornell, for that matter.”
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