Boris Tsang/Sun File Photo

Despite a recent loss to Penn State, Cornell men's basketball has compiled a 4-1 record thanks to its fast-paced offense.

November 24, 2021

Men’s Basketball Falls in Battle Against Penn State

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Senior guard Sarju Patel scored 15 points, freshman guard Nazir Williams added 14 and Cornell men’s basketball (4-1) had Penn State (3-1) on the ropes at the Bryce Jordan Center in University Park, Pennsylvania on Monday. But a late rally spearheaded by Penn State’s senior guards was enough for the team to overcome the Red, 85-74. 

Cornell made the 183-mile trek to Happy Valley after winning its first four games of the season, the program’s best start since 1961. In the last meeting between the two teams — on Dec. 29, 2019 — Penn State dominated the Red, 90-59. 

The game was defined by back-and-forth, up-tempo play, which worked to Cornell’s advantage. The Red entered the game with the 18th fastest pace (78.8 possessions per game) in the NCAA and ran a full-court man-to-man press on defense, contributing to the game’s frenzied style. 

The Lions leaped out to a 17-11 lead nine minutes in. Then Penn State was held scoreless for four minutes, allowing Cornell to go on a 16-0 run. After a turnover by Myles Dread, junior forward Jordan Jones hit a long-range jumper to give Cornell its first lead midway through the first half. With eight minutes remaining, Cornell led 27-17. 

“Well, we were able to keep the pace up, which is what we’ve been trying to do this year,” said Head Coach Brian Earl. “We made a few runs and were able to tire them out a little bit.”

Hot shooting from senior guard Sam Sessoms helped the Nittany Lions keep pace, despite the team conceding turnovers and looking rattled by heavy defensive pressure. Trailing 34-27 at the 3:29 mark of the first half, Sessoms buried four consecutive 3-pointers to put Penn State on top, 41-38, at the break. 

Early in the second half, the Red returned the favor and went on a 14-0 run. Patel hit a pair of 3-pointers in quick succession, and Cornell retook the lead 50-46 with 15 minutes to play. At last, the pace slowed some, but neither team could put the other away. After Nair Williams converted both shots at the foul line, the Red found itself only down two, 73-71, with only a few minutes remaining on the clock. 

“We were basically tied with five or six minutes left to go, but I think that that’s where we have to improve: how to win a game in the last couple of minutes,” Earl said. 

In that final stretch, Penn State made the necessary shots to claim victory. Seniors Jalen Pickett and Sam Sessoms contributed pivotal points. Pickett shot 7-of-8 from the foul line in the final four minutes. He finished with 15 points and six assists. Sessoms started the late run for the Lions with back-to-back 3-pointers. He finished with 22 points, four assists, and six rebounds while shooting 5-of-8 from 3-point range. 

Cornell, meanwhile, erred in opportunities at the foul line and looked erratic on offense in the closing minutes. Penn State persevered, winning 85-74. 

“I think against a Big Ten team that played last year [it’s more difficult],” Earl said. “We’re a young team that didn’t play last year, [so] we haven’t had to close anything out in years. It’s probably gonna be some nerves, missed shots and mistakes that are gonna come our way because of that.”

The Red shot 37.9 percent (25-of-66) from the field and 28.1 percent (9-of-32) from 3-point range, while the Nittany Lions shot 49.1 percent (27-of-55) and 44.1 percent (15-of-34). Cornell registered 20 points off turnovers to Penn State’s 8. The Red also tallied 27 bench points, while the Lions recorded 13.

While still a loss in the books, the game could be a sign of good things to come. The performance showed Cornell’s blitzing start should be taken seriously. The Red can run with Power Five conference foes and put them off-balance offensively.

On Wednesday afternoon, the Red will host St. Francis (PA) (1-2) at Newman Aren as it looks to head into the Thanksgiving break on a winning note. If the Red wins, it will sit at 5-1 for the first time since 1967. To do so, Cornell will have to be ready to dictate the pace of the game, as it has for most of the season so far.

“I think they run pretty hard in transition,” Earl said. “We’re gonna try to slow them a little bit. On the flipside, they’re also running a pretty methodical offense so we’re gonna have to work on the two sides of the way they play and be ready for both. We gotta be ready to roll with both sides.”