PHILADELPHIA — To those at home watching ESPN’s bottom line, Penn’s 83-71 win over Cornell on Saturday night appeared to be a familiar story, in which the Quakers easily handled the Red as they had many times before. But the 6,656 spectators in the Palestra saw something very different, as Cornell nearly unseated the first-place team in the Ivy League.
“We’ve built this program up to where we’re done with moral victories,” said Cornell head coach Steve Donahue. “This hurts. These kids believe that they are going to win. … They believe in each other.”
[img_assist|nid=21479|title=Golden Graham|desc=Senior Graham Dow (3) goes after a loose ball in Cornell’s 83-71 loss to Penn on Saturday, a game in which the Red challenged the league-leading Quakers until the final buzzer.|link=none|align=left|width=100|height=77]
The seniors on the court set the tone for both teams, with Andrew Naeve pacing Cornell (14-10, 7-3 Ivy) with 20 points and 10 rebounds for his fourth double-double in as many games and Ibrahim Jaaber and Mark Zoller leading Penn (17-8, 8-1) with 25 and 24 points, respectively. Zoller also led all players with six assists and six steals.
Cornell also received significant contributions from the freshman class, as Ryan Wittman tallied 15 points, Geoff Reeves came off the bench for 12 and point guard Louis Dale scored 11 points.
“Overall, Cornell is a good team and it’s a nice win at home to stay in first place,” said Penn head coach Glenn Miller. “[Cornell’s] freshman class is very good; they’re not playing like freshmen, they’re playing like upperclassmen. … And the anchor of their team is really inside with Naeve and [senior] Graham Dow. Those guys are experienced players who are tough competitors.”
Both teams were shooting well, as the Red shot 51.9 percent from the field and the Quakers hit on exactly half of their attempts. Penn out-rebounded Cornell, 36-28, including a 17-7 advantage on the offensive boards.
Naeve provided a spark from the start, scoring Cornell’s first six points of the game to stake the Red to an early lead. Penn crept ahead with a 3-pointer from Zoller at the 13:56 mark to make the score 15-13, but the lead didn’t last long. Wittman connected on a trey of his own three minutes later to recapture the lead for the Red. A thunderous baseline dunk from Naeve put the Red ahead, 24-17, with 8:20 left in the half for Cornell’s biggest lead of the game.
It looked as though the Quakers were ready to run away with it, however, as they turned up the pressure and out-scored the Red, 23-6, in the final eight minutes of the stanza. In all, 14 of Cornell’s 20 turnovers came in the first half. Zoller’s second trey of the night swished through the net as the buzzer sounded to give Penn a 40-30 advantage at the break.
“It really looked like we came unraveled,” Donahue said. “We had every right to come out as young as we are and with all the freshmen out there to get blown out by 30 by this team, and a part of me thought we might. … But I credit our older guys with maintaining that poise to play through what we were going through. I was proud of our effort.”
While the older players provided the poise, it was a youngster that put up the points to get Cornell back in the game at the start of the second half. Dale connected on a free throw, a layup and a 3 to close the gap to six, then assisted on a jumper from Naeve that put the Red ahead, 50-49, with 13:37 remaining in the game.
“I think you saw a glimpse of what [Dale] can do,” Donahue said. “You see a senior like Ibby Jaaber out there and Louis is a freshman, I have every right to think that Louis could be that special. I don’t know if he could be that exact way, but in terms of an impact on a game, Louis has all the characteristics.”
Cornell was playing from behind for the last 11 minutes after a layup from Jaaber tipped the scales in Penn’s favor once more. The Red ran into trouble when freshman Alex Tyler fouled out with 5:37 remaining, and then again when Dale earned his fifth foul just over a minute later. The Quakers also grabbed 10 offensive rebounds in the second half, creating opportunities to extend their lead down the stretch.
“The leaders on the team have been here before, they’ve been in these types of games,” Miller said. “They don’t panic, they have a lot of pride and determination and made some big plays. Big stops defensively, big scores offensively.”
Reeves came in for Dale and put up eight points for the Red — including two 3s — in the final five minutes. But over that same stretch, the Quakers went 6-for-8 from the charity stripe and Jaaber ignited the fast break to pull ahead by as many as 14 points. A final tip-in by freshman Brian Kreefer was too little, too late for the Red.
“It hurts. … I think the five or six minutes of the game that we played badly, they won it in those stretches,” Naeve said. “Otherwise I think we outplayed them the other 35 minutes of the game.”