John Giannini shook his head in wonder while talking about the performance Cornell's Ryan Wittman gave yesterday in the Big Red's 78-75 victory over La Salle at Tom Gola Arena.

Wittman, a 6-foot-7 senior forward who is in perpetual motion and likely will be this season's Ivy League player of the year, poured in a career high of 34 points and became Cornell's all-time leading scorer with 1,667 points.

The son of former Indiana star Randy Wittman, the Big Ten player of the year in 1982-83, almost single-handedly held off the Explorers' furious second-half comeback by scoring 23 points in the final 20 minutes.

Giannini marveled at the way Wittman went about his business.

"He's just a great shooter and he's crafty, and obviously the guy was not only genetically programmed to be a great player, but he probably was in a basketball environment coming out of the womb, too," the La Salle coach said.

But after La Salle (7-5) went down for the third time in the last four games, Giannini's appreciation of Wittman's talent gave way to serious concerns about the Explorers, who began the season with more talent, experience, and promise than they had in years.

"We're not consistent," he said. "We're up and down, and that's the way we practice.

"With some individuals, we're not as demanding as we need to be. Defensively, I think, we give up some easy baskets and it's 'Oh, well, I made a mistake. I didn't mean to make it.' I think we need to hold ourselves to a higher standard."

A year ago, Giannini got his players' attention when he rewarded those who worked hardest in practice with starting jobs.

But even though he has basically the same group back - and added highly touted freshman center Aaric Murray - injuries to guard Ruben Guillandeaux and forward Terrell Williams have robbed him of depth.

"Right now, we have to play certain guys, and if they're not performing, we don't have a lot of options," Giannini said. "I have to get those guys to be more consistent."

Aside from Wittman's remarkable second half - he shot 7 for 10, including 3 for 5 from three-point distance - La Salle probably lost the game late in the first half, when Cornell (10-2) extended a three-point lead to 38-27 at the break.

The Explorers used a 10-0 run early in the second half to close to within 40-39. But after Big Red coach Steve Donahue, a former assistant at Penn under Fran Dunphy for 10 seasons, called a time-out, Cornell settled down and Wittman took command.

"Coach just said they punched us and now we had to go back at them," Wittman said.

La Salle's final gasp came after Rodney Green closed the deficit to 72-69 with 1 minute, 9 seconds to go. The Explorers got a stop, but all hope was lost when Steve Weingarten shot an air ball on a hurried three-point shot.

Wittman sealed the win with six consecutive free throws, and Cornell had its eighth straight victory.

Contact staff writer Ray Parrillo at 215-854-2743 or rparrillo@phillynews.com.