STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- The smile on Mike Watkins’ face was nearly as large as the slam dunk Penn State’s big man had just thrown down.
Watkins capped off the nonconference schedule with another highlight-worthy dunk -- a powerful first-half alley-oop -- and had 19 points and 10 rebounds in the 20th-ranked Nittany Lions’ 90-59 win over Cornell on Sunday.
“He definitely is enjoying playing the game of basketball,” Penn State coach Patrick Chambers said. “He’s in a good space day-to-day.”
So are the Nittany Lions (11-2), who ended their nonconference schedule with their 13th straight home win. They’re enjoying watching Watkins’ resurgence alongside Lamar Stevens’ usual contributions.
Stevens added 19 points, Myreon Jones scored 18 and Izaiah Brockington had 11 for the Nittany Lions, who led for all but 2:01 after Watkins and Stevens took over early. Watkins scored 16 of his points in the opening 20 minutes, and Stevens helped Penn State take control midway through the first half.
The big forward broke a 9-all tie with three straight baskets that made it 16-9. When Stevens needed a breather moments later, Seth Lundy relieved and drilled a 3-pointer to give the Nittany Lions their first double-digit lead.
Cornell (1-10) made just one field goal over the next 4:56. Three Big Red 3-pointers before halftime didn’t help, as Penn State put together a 26-20 run and closed out the first 20 minutes with a 45-29 lead.
“They’re enormous and athletic,” Cornell coach Brian Earl said. “We just don’t have the horses to match Watkins and Stevens.”
Stevens opened the second half with a half-court steal he turned into an easy dunk. It sparked a 33-14 run over the next 13:28, and Penn State led by 35 with 6:32 left.
The Nittany Lions have remained true to their preseason promise to be a defense-first squad.
In addition to holding Cornell to six points below its points-per-game total, Penn State’s defense helped secure eight steals, three blocks and forced 11 turnovers.
“I feel like we were really active with our hands,” Brockington said. “Trying to create discomfort and controlled chaos on the defensive end. Once we get the steal, I feel like we’re one of the fastest teams in the Big Ten and the country.”
Penn State lost starting guard Jamari Wheeler midway through the first half after he took an elbow to the face.
Wheeler logged eight minutes before slowly leaving Penn State’s bench for the locker room with a towel over his head. He reappeared after halftime but held a bag of ice over his right eye and watched the rest of the action through his left.
Chambers said he did not have an update on Wheeler’s status.
Cornell: After opening the season with a 20-point win over Binghamton, the Big Red have dropped 10 in a row. While they’ve lost six of those by four points or less, they have shot better than 45% from the floor in just one of those outings.
Penn State: The Nittany Lions kept rolling and had another chance to show off their depth in this one.
SUNY-Purchase visits Cornell on Jan. 7.
Penn State hosts Iowa on Saturday.
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