UNIVERSITY PARK - The non-conference portion of the season is over, and Penn State came out of it OK with an 8-5 record.
Now the Nittany Lions are about to enter a different world.
Even though coach Patrick Chambers said the team has made big improvements, it remains to be seen if this young, inexperienced PSU squad is anywhere near good enough for Big Ten competition.
"We're building here," Chambers said after Wednesday night's hard-fought 74-67 win over Cornell at Bryce Jordan Center. "We're building a great foundation. These kids are playing hard. They're getting better every day."
The slow but steady improvement has been good enough against eight teams so far. But those eight opponents PSU has beaten have a combined record of just 32-58.
The next four opponents are a combined 40-6 (Michigan 9-2, Northwestern 10-1, Purdue 10-3, Indiana 11-0).
The Big Ten has been one of the nation's best conferences in recent years, and that's also the case this season with six teams in the Top 25. The Lions will learn quickly what the league is all about when they travel to No. 20 Michigan to open conference play Dec. 29.
"I think you're going to see a team that's not afraid to compete," Chambers said before later adding, "We've got to go in saying, 'We're Penn State, we're here to compete.'"
The most important thing the Lions will have to do in conference play, Chambers and the players said, will be valuing each and every possession. They did a good job of that late in Wednesday's game to finish off Cornell and close out the non-conference schedule on a positive note.
Cornell (4-6) tied the game at 64 on a 3-pointer by Chris Wroblewski with 1:53 remaining. The Lions took the lead right back as Jermaine Marshall drew a foul and hit both free throws with 1:27 to go.
Wroblewski missed from the left baseline on Cornell's next trip, and after a PSU timeout, Marshall was fouled as he split the defense driving to the lane. He hit both free throws for a 68-64 lead with 35 seconds left.
Cornell again came up empty as Wroblewski committed a foul, and Cammeron Woodyard sank both free throws for the Lions. The Big Red put one final scare into PSU as Drew Ferry buried a 3-pointer with 20 seconds left to make it 70-67, but the Lions sealed it at the foul line as Woodyard and Tim Frazier both made a pair in the closing seconds.
"I think we've grown each day," Frazier, who led PSU with 17 points, said of the team's improvement. "You see us out on the court, we've made steps, we're not doing the same mistakes we've made."
The Lions also, on occasion, have been getting contributions from other players to help take some of the scoring burden off Frazier. Woodyard and Trey Lewis both made big 3-pointers in key situations Wednesday to finish with 13 points apiece, while Marshall added 12.
Frazier, who added 11 assists and six rebounds, looked comfortable dishing the ball and trusting his teammates in big spots.
"Definitely I trust my teammates 100 percent," Frazier said. "For those guys to make big shots, that relieves some of the defensive pressure loaded around me. ... That opens up stuff for me."
Cornell coach Bill Courtney seemed surprised PSU shot so many 3-pointers, making 10-of-24. The Big Red had played at Illinois just two days earlier (losing 64-60) and were playing their third game in five days, and it appeared they just ran out of gas at the end.
"I don't think that that was a big factor," Courtney said of the fatigue. "Maybe it was. Maybe that was the reason we had 29 fouls."
Ferry led Cornell with 20 points, hitting 6-of-11 3-pointers, while Shonn Miller had 15. The Big Red shot lights out early and led most of the first half before PSU rallied late to go into the locker room down just 31-30.
The Lions used a 9-0 run early in the second half to build a 49-42 lead, but Cornell came right back with seven unanswered points, and things were close the rest of the way.
Heading into conference play, Chambers said he likes his team's intensity and stressed taking care of the ball and getting good shots.
"As long as we're defending, rebounding and giving ourselves a chance, we're heading in the right direction," Chambers said.