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Penn can’t stop Cornell’s march toward perfection

Last weekend, at home, Cornell made history. Last night at the Palestra, it was trying to make a statement.

Last weekend, at home, Cornell made history.

Last night at the Palestra, it was trying to make a statement.

Six days earlier, the Big Red had become the first Ivy League basketball team not named Penn or Princeton to earn a trip to the NCAA Tournament in two decades. Still, no Ivy team besides Penn and Princeton had gone through league play unblemished.

Cornell (21-5), which hasn't lost since early January (at Duke), managed to survive, 94-92. But not before almost letting a 10-point lead slip away in the closing 33 seconds. The Quakers (11-18, 6-6) had a chance at the end. After Ryan Wittman made one of two free throws with 2.7 seconds left to double the lead, Tyler Bernardini, who'd just made two three-pointers from straightaway, caught the inbounds pass at midcourt and dribbled toward the same spot. There appeared to be some contact, by two defenders, as he made his move to go up with the ball. But there was no call. Which was one of several calls Penn coach Glenn Miller took exception to.

But his vantage point doesn't count.

The Big Red will try to complete a 14-0 Ivy run tonight at last-place Princeton.

It hadn't won here in almost two decades. And until this season's first meeting at Ithaca on Feb. 9, they hadn't beaten the Quakers anywhere in 9 years. Which is as long as one-time Penn assistant Steve Donahue has been in charge. So besides the chase for perfection, there was certainly no lack of motivation.

The win also gave the Big Red the school record for victories.

The Quakers will play their final home game tonight against Columbia, which beat them in New York last month. They'll finish Tuesday at Princeton.

When the final play came up, Miller tossed it right back.

"I understand why you have to ask the question," he said. "But write what you saw. I'd rather that, than have me say what I saw. That wouldn't be good for me."

The Quakers were up eight early and down eight midway through the first half. At the break, it was 44-44. Good hoops, as longtime Associated Press writer Jack Scheuer likes to say. And it stayed that way. With 12 minutes to go, Penn was up nine. Before the Quakers scored again, 8 minutes later, Cornell had run off 15 straight. The Big Red extended it to 10 with 33 ticks showing.

Penn suddenly couldn't miss, and if Cornell wasn't turning it over, one of the nation's best free throw shooting teams was bricking from the line.

A trey by Harrison Gaines made it 91-84, at 0:30. Ten seconds later, another by Bernardini cut it to four. After Louis Dale, the nation's top foul shooter, made one of two, Gaines drove the lane, and it was a one-possession game with 13 seconds left.

At 9.8, Dale again made one of two. And was even lucky to get a friendly roll on the second. At 3.3, Bernardini swished one more from distance. Which set up the ending sequence.

"It was a great college basketball game," Donahue said. "I'm proud of our guys. We were fortunate to come out on top."

Dale had 24 points for the Big Red. Four others had between 12 and 17. Wittman was 5-for-15 from the field, but his teammates went 24-for-48.

Penn got 25 from Bernardini, one off his career best, and 19 from Gaines, who tied a career high set against Cornell. They're both freshmen. Brian Grandieri, the lone senior of note, had 21 points on 9-for-14 shooting.

"It's a tough game to lose," Miller said. "We played hard. The guys believed they could win. It was an important game for us [too]...

"We came back at the end [tonight], with hustle and determination. That's a great sign. We're looking forward to next year, but we want to get the most out of each and every day [we have left]. Cornell's the best team in the league. And we maybe even should have won." *