PHILADELPHIA - Memo to all of those Penn students who decided that they had to get away for spring break and could not stay Friday night to see their men's basketball team play at The Palestra:
Boy, did you miss out.
In a game that was as intense and emotional as you will ever see, the Quakers gave Ivy champion Cornell all it could handle but succumbed to the Big Red, 94-92. The win allowed Cornell to remain unbeaten in the Ivy League, at 13-0; the Big Red will attempt to capture their first undefeated Ivy campaign tomorrow night at Princeton.
For Penn (11-18, 6-6 Ivy), meanwhile, this was certainly a game to draw upon. And, with all apologies to Princeton, the Quakers may have found a new rival for the foreseeable future -- anyone who has witnessed the last three games between these teams, going back to last season, can tell you that all of them have been 15-round heavyweight bouts. With several freshmen and sophomores garnering major minutes in the Penn lineup, and Cornell led by four sophomores, it only figures to intensify over the next few years.
Friday night may have been the best of all three. In front of a crowd of 4,865 at the sweatbox known as The Palestra -- including a sizable Cornell contingent, eager to see their conference champions -- the game ebbed and flowed, but ultimately led to a finish that was not without controversy.
After a first half that ended tied at 44-44, and was still tied at 56-56 until Penn took off on an 11-2 run. Each basket seemed to further enliven the Penn fans, and when junior Cameron Lewis faked a handoff to a teammate, blew by a Cornell defender and emphatically slammed home two points over another helpless Big Red player The Palestra was in full frenzy.
Cornell kept its composure, though, and after trading baskets with the Quakers held them scoreless for exactly eight minutes. During that stretch, the Big Red scored 15 unanswered points and gained all the momentum. It was not until Brian Grandieri hit a jumper with 4:03 remaining that Penn finally stopped the skid and made the score 75-71, Cornell.
(by the way, if you are adding it up...yup, you're right. The teams combined for a staggering 40 points in the final four minutes)
It looked like Cornell was going to keep Penn at bay, but funny things happened in the final minute that made you think another Palestra miracle might be in store.
Down, 91-84, and with just 30 seconds to play, Penn forced Cornell's Louis Dale into a turnover which Tyler Bernardini quickly turned into three points. The Quakers then fouled Dale on the inbounds, and the national leader in free-throw percentage missed his first before making his second. That made the score 92-87 with 18 seconds to go.
Harrison Gaines drove the length of the floor and knocked home a quick two, and then Penn fouled Dale again on the inbounds. The sophomore guard missed again, but then made the second, and the score was 93-89.
(to give you a sense of the odds of Dale missing two out of three, consider that prior to Friday he had missed five free throws all season, made a school-record 52 in a row during one stretch in this campaign, and had not missed more than once in a game the entire season. Oh, and he was 5-of-5 in this game before those final four foul shots)
Penn rushed the ball down the floor and got Bernardini open, and he hit another trey from way up top with 3.3 seconds left on the clock to make the score 93-92. Cornell immediately inbounded the ball to Ryan Wittman, the Ivy League's third-leading scorer and an 88-percent foul shooter, and Penn put him on the line with 2.7 ticks to go. Wittman -- you guessed it -- missed the first before making the second.
That gave Penn one last gasp. Justin Reilly inbounded, throwing an overhand pass that Bernardini caught about 45 feet out in front of the Quaker bench. He took a dribble to the middle of the floor and appeared to be going up for a potential game-winning three-pointer when Cornell's Adam Gore interfered and the ball bounced away.
If you are wearing Penn white, you say Gore got him on the arm and a foul should be called. If you are wearing Cornell red, you say all ball and no call should be made. On this there can be no debate -- it was close. Real close. And in the heat of the moment and in real time, pretty much impossible to definitively say one way or the other.
On this occasion, to the dismay and ire of Penn's fans, no call was made, and instead the horn blew to end the game.
It was unfortunate end to an incredible performance by several Penn players. Bernardini, who missed the first meeting between these two in early February, ended the night with a game-high 25 points, draining five threes including four in the second half. Grandieri had another yeoman effort, with 21 points and seven rebounds in 36 minutes. And for the second time in as many meetings, Gaines proved a thorn in Cornell's side, with 19 points and six assists against just one turnover.
Reilly, Jack Eggleston and Andreas Schreiber all ended up with seven points, and Eggleston also had seven boards before fouling out.
Cornell, meanwhile, placed five players in double figures in scoring, led by Dale who had 24 points to go with seven assists. Gore scored 19 points -- hitting five three-pointers -- while Wittman had 17 and Alex Tyler had 16. Off the bench, Jeff Foote recorded a double-double with 12 points and 10 rebounds.
Penn is back in action tomorrow night, hosting Columbia on Senior Night. Prior to the 7 p.m. tipoff, the men's basketball program will honor outgoing seniors Joe Gill, Grandieri, and Michael Kach.