Johnny Gray has done a lot of great things this season, but prolific defense has not been what he’s known for. But Gray changed that on Friday. In the first 36 minutes of action, Gray managed to hold the Ivy League Player of the Year favorite to just 10 points on 5-14 shooting. Unfortunately, it was the final four minutes, not the first 36 that made the difference.
Four minutes. How much can really change in four minutes? Just ask Zack Rosen. Rosen, in the final four minutes against Cornell, was unbelievable, playing probably the best stretch of basketball I’ve seen by a point guard at any level. Yes, even including the great Jeremy Lin.
Rosen was the best player on the court. The crowd knew it. Cornell knew it. Most importantly, Rosen knew it, and he played like it. Four minutes, 3-3 shooting, 13 points, 1 rebound, 1 assist, 2 steals. Big shot after big shot. Big play after big play. Rosen single handily turned a four-point deficit into a seven-point victory.
Down the stretch, Penn ran just one play. Rosen dribbling the ball at the top of the circle. Fran Dougherty coming up from the block to set a high ball screen. Rosen using the screen, drawing a double team, and making something happen. Time and time again, Rosen executed to perfection. Penn had no reason to even attempt to run something different.
Like Cornell, Penn is a team without an imposing frontcourt. This allowed Bill Courtney to start the game with a smaller lineup. Courtney chose to start Dwight Tarwater and Shonn Miller in place of his usual starting frontcourt of Shonn Miller and Eitan Chemerinski. This gave Cornell a little more speed and athleticism without giving up much on the glass.
However, to close the game, Courtney went back to Miller and Chemerinski. Jerome Allen countered with Rob Belcore and Dougherty. Cornell played man-to-man defense which put Miller (6’7) on Belcore (6’6) and Chemerinski (6’8) on Dougherty (6’8). When Dougherty came up and screened Gray, it forced Chemerinski to switch and cover Rosen on the perimeter. On one of the first switches down the stretch, Eitan backed up, put his hands in the air, and watched Rosen nail a three. Chemerinski is simply not quick or agile enough to guard a guy like Zack Rosen on the perimeter.
Gray quickly recognized the recurring play call and fought through the screen to double, but even that wasn’t enough. Whether it was splitting the double team to create space, stepping back and launching a three, or finding Miles Cartwright in the corner to beat the shot clock, Rosen seemed to always be one step ahead of what Cornell could do defensively. Every time down the floor, same play. Everyone in the gym knew exactly what was going to happen, Cornell just couldn’t stop it.
What could Cornell have done?
I thought against Penn, Cornell was hurt as much if not more than it has at any other point this season by Errick Peck’s absence. Peck, an athletic 6’6 body, in the game would have allowed Courtney to put Miller or Peck on Dougherty. When Dougherty came up to screen, it would have been Miller or Peck, not Chemerinski to switch on to Rosen, giving Cornell more speed, quickness, and athleticism on the ball.
Cornell kept the same lineup on the court from the 7:20 mark to just :13 left to play. After Rosen carved the Cornell defense up for the umpteenth time down the stretch, it would have been nice to see a different look out there. Maybe go small the way Cornell opened the game. Tarwater at the 4 would have had the same effect as having Peck in the game. I’ll give Courtney the benefit of the doubt though. Maybe there was
something I missed or some reason why Tarwater remained on the bench for the final seven minutes and twenty seconds. Would it have been enough to stop Rosen? Who knows. Rosen is a special guard and a heck of a finisher. It just seemed as though we watched this game slip away, and Cornell did nothing to stop it.